COHEN. Contextualism, Skepticism, And the Structure of Reasons

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  • Contextualism, Skepticism, and the Structure of ReasonsAuthor(s): Stewart CohenReviewed work(s):Source: Nos, Vol. 33, Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives, 13, Epistemology (1999), pp. 57-89Published by: WileyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2676096 .Accessed: 20/02/2013 12:59

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  • Philosophical Perspectives, 13, Epistemology, 1999

    CONTEXTUALISM, SKEPTICISM, AND THE STRUCTURE OF REASONS

    Stewart Cohen Arizona State University

    Suppose one speaker says about a subject S and a proposition P, "S knows P." At the very same time, another speaker says of the very same subject and prop- osition, "S does not know P." Must one of the two be speaking falsely? According to the view I will call 'contextualism', both speakers can be speaking the truth. Contextualism is the view that ascriptions of knowledge are context-sensitive- the truth-values of sentences containing the words 'know', and its cognates de- pend on contextually determined standards. Because of this, sentences of the form 'S knows P' can, at one time, have different truth-values in different con- texts. Now when I say 'contexts', I mean 'contexts of ascription'. So the truth- value of a sentence containing the knowledge predicate can vary depending on things like the purposes, intentions, expectations, presuppositions, etc., of the speakers who utter these sentences.

    In what follows, I defend the view that ascriptions of knowledge are context- sensitive. I then argue that a contextualist account of knowledge ascriptions, when combined with a particular view about the structure of reasons, can go a long way toward providing a satisfactory response to skepticism.

    I have previously defended a contextualist treatment of skepticism.1 In recent years, others have proposed contextualist responses to skepticism as well2 In this paper, I revise and further develop my earlier account. I argue that my particular version of contextualism compares favorably with other contextualist accounts. Finally I respond to objections that have been raised against any contextualist response to skepticism.

    (I) Contextualism

    We can begin by considering what I will call 'the entailment principle':

    S knows P on the basis of (reason or evidence) R only if R entails P.

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  • 58 / Stewart Cohen

    As we know, the entailment principle leads to skepticism. Most philosophers reject the entailment principle thereby embracing fallibilism. The motivation for fallibilism stems from the widely held view that what we seek in constructing a theory of knowledge is an account that squares with our strong intuition that we know many things. It is not that skepticism is to be avoided at all costs. But while the entailment principle may look attractive in the abstract, it does not command the kind of assent sufficient to withstand the overwhelming case against it pro- vided by our intuitions concerning what we know.

    Let an alternative to P be any proposition incompatible with P. Then we can define fallibilism as the view that:

    S can know P on the basis of R even if there is some alternative to P, com- patible with R.

    Falliblism allows that we can know on the basis of non-entailing reasons. But how good do the reasons have to be? Reflection on cases show that this can be a difficult question to answer:

    Mary and John are at the L.A. airport contemplating taking a certain flight to New York. They want to know whether the flight has a layover in Chicago. They overhear someone ask a passenger Smith if he knows whether the flight stops in Chicago. Smith looks at the flight itinerary he got from the travel agent and responds,"Yes I know it does stop in Chicago." It turns out that Mary and John have a very important business contact they have to make at the Chicago airport. Mary says, " How reliable is that itinerary? It could contain a misprint. They could have changed the schedule at the last minute." Mary and John agree that Smith doesn't really know that the plane will stop in Chicago. They decide to check with the airline agent.

    What should we say about this case?3 Smith claims to know that the flight stops in Chicago. Mary and John deny that Smith knows this. Mary and John seem to be using a stricter standard than Smith for how good one's reasons have to be in order to know. Whose standard is correct? Let's consider several answers:

    1) Mary and John's stricter standard is too strong, i.e., Smith's standard is correct and so Smith can know the flight stops in Chicago (on the basis of consulting the itinerary).

    Is this a good answer? If we say that contrary to what both Mary and John pre- suppose, the weaker standard is correct, then we would have to say that their use of the word 'know' is incorrect. But then it is hard to see how Mary and John should describe their situation. Certainly they are being prudent in refusing to rely on the itinerary. They have a very important meeting in Chicago. Yet if Smith knows on the basis of the itinerary that the flight stops in Chicago, what should

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  • Contextualism, Skepticism, and Reasons / 59

    they have said? "Okay, Smith knows that the flight stops in Chicago, but still, we need to check further." To my ear, it is hard to make sense of that claim. Moreover if what is printed in the itinerary is a good enough reason for Smith to know, then it is a good enough reason for John and Mary to know. Thus John and Mary should have said, "Okay, we know the plane stops in Chicago, but still, we need to check further." Again it is hard to make sense of such a claim.

    Perhaps then the correct answer is:

    2) John and Mary are right and so Smith's standard is too weak. (Smith can not know, but John and Mary can know after checking further with the agent.)

    I think this is a natural response to this case as I have described it. But notice that this contrasts with the standards we typically use for knowledge ascrip- tions. In everyday contexts, we readily ascribe knowledge to someone on the basis of written information contained in things like flight itineraries. If we deny that Smith knows, then we have to deny that we know in many of the everyday cases in which we claim to know. We would have to say that a con- siderable amount of the time in our everyday lives, we speak falsely when we say we know things.

    And it gets worse. We could describe a case where even Mary and John's standard does not seem strict enough: If someone's life were at stake, we might not even be willing to ascribe knowledge on the basis of the testimony of the airline agent. We might insist on checking with the pilot. So it does not look promising to say that Smith's standard is too weak.

    We could, at this point, pursue a third option, viz., all of these standards are too weak. This option leads, of course, to skepticism and presumably, this is a result we want to avoid. (We will return to this option in section III)

    So far we have examined three different answers to the question of whose standard is correct: (1) Smith's is correct and so John and Mary's standard is too strong. (2) John and Mary's standard is correct and so Smith's standard is too weak. (3) Neither Smith's nor John and Mary's standard is correct both are too weak. None of these answers seems satisfactory. So let me say what I take to be the best answer: Neither standard is simply correct or simply incorrect. Rather, context determines which standard is correct. Since the standards for knowledge ascriptions can vary across contexts, each claim, Smith's as well as Mary and John's, can be correct in the context in which it was made. When Smith says, "I know...", what he says is true given the weaker standard operating in that context. When Mary and John say "Smith does not know...", what they say is true given the stricter standard operating in their context. And there is no context independent correct standard.

    So I claim that this case, and others like it, strongly suggests that ascriptions of knowledge are context-sensitive. The standards that determine how good one's reasons have to be in order to know are determined by the context of ascription.

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    ErnestoResaltadoEL CONOCIMIENTO NO ES ALGO DE TODO O NADA, SINO QUE TAMBIN TIENE GRADOS DE PRECISIN, DEPENDIENDO DEL CAMPO Y DE LAS PRETENSIONES EN CUESTIN, Y DE LOS PROCEDIMIENTOS DE VERIFICACIN REQUERIDOS.

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  • 60 / Stewart Cohen

    This is to assume that the context is determining the truth-conditions for knowledge ascriptions. Ernest Sosa has suggested a different way to view this case.4 According to Sosa, Smith's weaker standard is correct in all co