Monday, December 07, 2009

Review of DeRose's Case for Contextualism

Here is a draft of a review of Keith DeRose's new book. Comments welcome.


  1. I don’t think I believe in the distinction you rely on here between ‘epistemic intuitions’ (i.e. intuitions about what is known) and ’semantic intuitions’ (i.e. intuitions about what ‘knows’-sentences are true). For it to seem to me as if S knows p just is for it to seem as if “S knows p” expresses a truth in my context."

    Well, ok, but it may be easier to discern the truth-conditions and truth-values of 'knows' claims in some contexts than in others. (Or maybe it's sometimes worse than that in the difficult cases: maybe in some cases it isn't that there are objectively clear standards in place but they're difficult to discern, but rather that there are no objectively clear standards in place (omniscient God doesn't even know).) And maybe philosophical discussions about epistemology -- say, epistemologists discussing/arguing about the analysis of knowledge and in connection with that talking about what is and is not "known" in various imaginary cases -- is one of the types of cases where it's at least difficult to discern the truth-values & truth-conditions of 'knows' claims (for reasons I won't go into here). (And maybe some freshman in college taking an x-phi survey, being asked on paper whether a certain subject 'knows' something or not, is an example of another kind of unclear case.) Then, when in such a context, our judgments about ourselves and our own present claims (judgments at both levels) may be very untrustworthy. But there may be other cases -- cases where it's clear why the the subjects are saying that they or other subjects do or don't know (what their conversational purposes are, what's at stake, etc.), and what of relevance has been said so far, etc., and all of these do point together quite clearly to a fairly determinate set of standards, and so we are able to make relatively secure judgments about the truth-values of these (usually imaginary) speakers' 'knows' claims. If someone were inclined to accept something like the above (as I am), that could then make pretty good sense of their being very suspicious of many of the uses of epistemic intuitions made in recent epistemology, while being more bullish about various semantic intuitions about the truth-values of certain 'knows' claims used in certain exercises in the philosophy of epistemological language.

  2. Thanks, Keith -- that's helpful. I agree that one could find reason to find some kinds of intuitions more reliable than others, and that if one found that pattern in the way you suggest, it would make good sense of the kind of methodological preference you express. Can you say a bit about why you think that's the way the patterns should play out?

  3. Hi Keith, on the 244-47 passage you mentioned: it seems that you're developing (in the part where you consider a way for the contextualist to avoid making sentences like the ones I'm considering true) a sort of contextualist 'parasitic' strategy according to which the speaker inherits features of the subject's practical situation. But it seems that this does not have a plausible general application. Consider a case where the speaker is in a nonskeptical context and the subject is in a skeptical situation, but the speaker is unaware of this latter fact. Now consider the sentence "the subject knows but ought not assert." I don't see how you keep it from being true in the speaker's context. It is, I submit, implausible that the subject's hidden situation affects the conversational context in the way the strategy of 246 requires.

    You go on to suggest that maybe sentences like these should be considered true after all. I don't agree, but that's not my sticking point here -- if you want to argue that there are truths like that, that's fine by me, and a reasonable way to resist Hawthorne's argument against contextualism. My point was just that doing so just doesn't seem to be a way of accepting the knowledge norm of assertion.