Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Contextualist Knowledge Norms

What should a contextualist who likes normative principles involving 'knows' say? Signing up to the knowledge norms means embracing something typically expressed by sentences fitting something like this schema:

(N) Iff S knows p, then S is permitted to phi

Some candidates for phi: S believe p; S rely on p in practical reasoning; S assert p. What I want to do right now is just outline the options for the contextualist who wants to make something suitably in the spirit of (N) true. I see four choices:

(1) Make the normative language contextualist. Now (N) is true in all contexts; "S knows p" is true in all the same contexts in which "S is permitted to phi" is true; the normative language shifts along with the 'knows' language. In skeptical contexts, "S is permitted to phi" will be false, while in nonskeptical ones, it will be true. In his "Knowledge, Context, and the Agent's Point of View," Timothy Williamson assumes this interpretation, and plausibly argues that the resultant view is pretty unattractive. If somebody says "S should phi," and somebody else says "S should not phi," and they're talking about the same S at the same time and using 'phi' to describe the same course of action, then we shouldn't think they're both right. (Jenkins and Nolan have a paper defending contextualist 'ought' discourse, though; I've been meaning to have a close look at it to see if it can help.)

(2) Limit the norm to the claim that (N) be true in any subject's context, leaving the right-hand side with an invariantist interpretation. If "S knows p" is true in S's context, then S is permitted to phi. This is DeRose's view about assertion. (His 2002 paper is not at all clear about how to interpret his version of (N), but his new book is explicit here. See my NDPR review for discussion.) We don't get the oddness that Williamson charges against (1), but there are reasons to be unhappy. For one thing, Jason suggested in seminar that this interpretation is ad hoc. I'm not sure about that. Maybe. Also, as Danielle pointed out in seminar, we do, at least apparently, get some truths that are in tension with what might be the spirit of the knowledge norms. If I'm not in S's context, for example, I might truly say "S knows p but is not permitted to phi." As I mentioned in seminar, DeRose has a defense that mitigates quite a lot against this objection -- in many of the relevant cases, we should expect speakers to adopt contextual standards appropriate to the subject's situation. I think this will work a lot, but not quite enough. (I'm worried about, for example, cases in which speakers are ignorant of the subject's situations. Here is a related blog post.) I'm also worried that there often won't be a determinate standard in place in a subject's context who isn't talking about knowledge (another blog post). I am working on idea about the assertion norm that is in this neighborhood, but, I think, gets around a lot of these objections; more on that soon.

(3) Make (N) true in some particular favored context. Suppose I'm a contextualist and I agree with Williamson when he writes that knowledge is the norm of assertion. One way to do that would be to say that the particular 'knows' relation picked out by Williamson's particular conversational context as he wrote his book is the invariantist norm of assertion. To take this strategy is to embrace a particular disambiguation of (N): Iff S knows(x) p, then S is permitted to phi. Now I'm not sure how plausible this kind of strategy will be in these instances (it certainly runs into at least some of the objections against (2)-type strategies), but it at least represents a position in logical space. I think there are some at least minimally parallel situations where this kind of strategy is correct. (This came out of a discussion I had with Derek Ball and Danielle Sgaravatti over dinner.) Here is an example of a normative principle that contains an uncontroversially context-sensitive term:

(M) S shouldn't murder anybody.

The quantifier "anybody" in English takes a context-sensitive domain, so in theory, we face the same kinds of questions about how to interpret this principle. Strategy (2) here is of course nuts; take some subject S who isn't talking about Derek, such that in his context, 'anybody' does not quantify over Derek. If S were to ask, in his present context, "is anybody taller than 6-foot-2?", the correct answer would be 'no'. According to the (2)-interpretation, (M) carries no prohibition against murdering Derek (who is tall). So the (2)-interpretation of (M) is not the best one. I think the (3)-interpretation of (M) is pretty plausibly correct; an utterance of (M) will typically be one about some privileged domain of individuals. A contextualist could interpret knowledge norms this way if he wanted to. I'm not terribly inclined toward this view, but it looks like a legitimate one.

(4) This is the kind of strategy I'm most interested in at the moment. Like the defender of (1), I want to make (N) true in all contexts, but I don't want to do it by exploiting context-sensitivity of normative language. Instead, I suggest that in at least some instances of the schema, the 'phi' bits will be context-sensitive. (Notice, by the way, that a contextualist needn't adopt a uniform treatment for all instances of the schema. There's nothing stopping him, for example, from employing strategy (4) for the norm of belief by arguing that 'believes' is context-sensitive, picking a favored context for the norm of assertion, and flatly denying the norm of practical reasoning. Norms must be considered one at a time.) Suppose I'm a contextualist about 'believes'. Then I might think that in any context c, it is permissible that 'S believes p' be true in c iff 'S knows p' is true in c. Then we can have 'knows p' and 'is permitted to believe p' swinging together, without the troublesome implication that two people could give contradictory advice, while both being correct. (Two people could each offer sentences that appear contradictory, but the sentences inside their 'oughts' will express compossible propositions.) Maybe you'll think this sounds totally ad hoc. I wouldn't blame you a bit; so far I've just pointed out a bit of conceptual space. But I'm working on a paper that pursues this strategy in some detail, hopefully along with a plausible motivation, with respect to the knowledge norm of belief. Again, more sometime soon.


  1. Your worry about (1):
    'If somebody says “S should phi,” and somebody else says “S should not phi,” and they’re talking about the same S at the same time and using ‘phi’ to describe the same course of action, then we shouldn’t think they’re both right.'

    A worry about 'knows'-contextualism:
    'If somebody says “S knows that p,” and somebody else says “S does not know that p,” and they’re talking about the same S at the same time and using ‘p’ to pick out the same proposition, then we shouldn’t think they’re both right.'

    The latter has a little intuitive pull, but is to be resisted. Why is the former different?

  2. It's a fair question, Carrie. And I don't mean to be totally ruling that option out. But it must be said that I see little appeal for it -- at least for using it in a broad enough class of cases to do the relevant work needed here. (I've no doubt that there can be some cases like this -- when the two subjects know different background facts, etc.) The 'shoulds' here just sound to me to be too closely connected to advice and all-things-considered normativity to be amenable to this move. But I'm definitely happy to listen to someone who wants to explain how this could work in a contextualist way.