Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Are 'epistemic standards' contrast classes?

Suppose you agree with Jonathan Schaffer that 'knows' takes an extra argument place, and that variation in what fills this slot explains the context-sensitivity of 'S-knows-that-p' attributions. Knowledge relates, say, a subject, a proposition, and, let's call it, the 'epistemic standard'. Nothing yet is assumed about what sort of thing that is. Schaffer thinks the epistemic standard is a contrast class, or, equivalently, a question. So "George knows he has hands" can express either of these three-place knowledge relations, depending on the context:

(1) K (George, <George has hands>, {<George has hands>, <George is not the sort of creature who has hands>, <George has lost his hands>})

(2) K (George, <George has hands>, {<George has hands>, <George is deceived by an evil demon into thinking he has hands>})

We could disambiguate in English, saying, "George knows he has hands rather than stumps", to get something like (1), or "George knows he has hands rather than being deceived by an evil demon into thinking he has hands" to get (2).

Identifying the epistemic standard with contrast classes does much of the work that a contextualist might legitimately seek -- for instance, it disambiguates the sentence above into a modest one and one inconsistent with skeptical intuitions -- but I think there might be a few reasons to prefer something different. Here are two related challenges to contrastivism that are not, I think, general challenges to the shifty variable approach.

Gettier cases. Suppose Henry's in fake barn country, but you and I don't have any reason to think that's so. (Neither does he.) I say to you, "Henry knows that he's looking at a barn." My sentence is ambiguous; what's the shifty epistemic standard? We can get an anti-skeptical reading with a contrast class of, e.g., barns and silos. But the antiskeptical reading in this case is very counterintuitive. To get the skeptical reading, which is the standard one, we need the contrast class to include fake barns. But given our situation, it's quite mysterious how the fake barn possibility got to be part of the semantic content of my sentence. (Compare the possible world in which everything seems exactly the same to all three of us, but Henry is in real barn country.)

Low-Attributor, High-Subject Bank Cases. Hannah and Sarah are desperate to get to the bank before Monday, and they have good but not great reason to think they can go tomorrow. You and I don't know and don't care how important it is to them; I say to you: "Hannah knows the bank will be open tomorrow." Here are two representative possible contrast classes: {<bank open tomorrow>, <bank not open Saturdays>}; {<bank open tomorrow>, <bank recently changed its policy and will be closed tomorrow>}. The latter is needed for the skeptical reading, which is the intuitive one; but what about me and my context could make it the case that this skeptical possibility is relevant? Again, compare the corresponding low-subject stakes version, which seems just the same to me.

Now I'm a good semantic externalist. So don't take me to be arguing that in each case, the intrinsic similarity entails sameness of semantic content. The argument can't go that directly. Nevertheless, in the relevant cases, it does look to me pretty strange that fake barns should appear in my content only if Henry happens to be in fake barn country, or that the policy-changing case is part of my content only if Hannah and Sarah's stakes are high. Intuitively, these features to which I'm blind are relevant to the truth of the knowledge attributions, but they are not relevant to their truth conditions.

Contrary to contrastivism, the subject is not irrelevant; the subject's practical and environmental features do play some role in determining what alternatives are relevant. This, to me, suggests that we might not want to put the relevant alternatives themselves into the semantics of my sentence. Don't make epistemic standards contrast classes; we can let the shifty epistemic standard be something else. Here's a modest suggestion: epistemic standards are functions from situations to contrast classes. A given standard tells you, for any situation the subject might be in, which possibilities are relevant. The speaker's context fixes the standard; the standard and the subject's situation fix the relevant alternatives. So speaker and subject are both 'relevant'.

Notice, by the way, that you don't have to go along with the encroachment stuff  to prefer this treatment to Schaffer's. The Gettier case provides, I think, a less contentious way of motivating just the same point. If you're one of those contextualists who is motivated in part by denying pragmatic encroachment, then you should think that no standard will deliver different alternatives for situations that differ only in stakes. (So you'll explain away intuitions about bank cases.) But unless you're also willing to explain away intuitions about Gettier cases, you should still have the standards be sensitive to the subject's environmental situation.


  1. jonathan weinberg11/18/2010 03:37:00 PM

    "My sentence is ambiguous; what’s the shifty epistemic standard? We can get an anti-skeptical reading with a contrast class of, e.g., barns and silos. But the antiskeptical reading in this case is very counterintuitive." I am pretty confident that Schaffer will deny your read on the data here, I.e., given that contrast class, he'll claim the antiskeptical reading will in fact be intuitive. But that's just an unusual contrast class for us to supply, without some appropriate tinkering to the thought-experiment, so he can capture that on the default contrast class of {barn, anything other than a barn} (or something like that), we do get the skeptical intuition.

  2. Maybe he'll say that, but I do think that's a significant pill to swallow. Contrary to your suggestion, the relevant nonskeptical contrast class would not be 'just an unusual contrast class for us to supply, without some appropriate tinkering to the thought-experiment'. In the case where I am ignorant of the subject's Gettiery situation, there's no reason at all to expect me to include the relevant skeptical possibilities into my contrast class.

    As I say a bit more explicitly in the next post, the issue is that the proposition expressed by my sentence should be the same whether or not, unbeknownst to me, there are fake barns around. To deny this is to deny that whether there are fake barns around can make a difference in who knows what. One could deny that, but I claim that doing so is embracing a fairly radical consequence.

  3. jonathan weinberg11/19/2010 06:09:00 AM

    "Maybe he’ll say that, but I do think that’s a significant pill to swallow." I'm not seeing why. It's not that he would think his theory should override a particular intuitive judgment -- he's going to think that the intuitions pattern as his theory predicts they ought. A sweet confection, not a bitter pill.

    I'm also just not getting what you think he's committed to about Gettier cases; why does he (_qua_ contrastivist) need to take any particular view on Gettier cases? I'm not seeing where the contrastive machinery is supposed to be part of the story, there.

    "proposition expressed by my sentence should be the same whether or not, unbeknownst to me, there are fake barns around." I'm just not seeing it; why does Jonathan S. need to disagree with that?

  4. I don't think that Schaffer or anyone need adopt this view about Gettier cases qua contrastivist; indeed, qua contrastivist, it looks like there is considerable pressure against doing so. I'm just taking the standard line on Gettier cases to be one that enjoys intuitive support. We could do some surveys to see whether I'm right about this, I guess, if we thought it was important how many people share the intuitions I'm citing. Anyway, I'm just saying that inconsistency with this widely held and well-motivated view is a theoretical cost. Whether Jonathan himself would agree, I'm not sure. (Although I admit, I would be a bit surprised if he denied that this was an intuitive cost.)

  5. jonathan weinberg11/20/2010 04:51:00 PM

    I'm not looking to make any restrictionist worries about Gettier here or anything like that. Schaffer will agree with you, I think, that in the cases as typically presented (i.e., without some explicit contrast class specified), then people will generally not attribute knowledge. He will go on to say, pretty plausibly, that this is because the natural way that people will fill in that missing contrastive position in the predicate is with something much more demanding than "barn or silo?" His prediction will then be that if we make that contrast class explicit, then people will grant knowledge. That prediction isn't inconsistent with any widely-held views, since there just are no widely-held views at all, I think, about what the intuition should be about fake-barn cases _with such explicit specifications of contrast sets_. And he is on the record about how he thinks intuitions pattern in similar sorts of cases, like his "knows it's Pres. Bush and not Janet Jackson" case.