Christoph Jäger argues in a recent Analysis paper that contextualism and the knowledge norm of assertion are jointly untenable. Here’s my reconstruction of Jäger’s argument. (My numbering will differ from his.) Suppose that Keith has hands and the usual epistemic access to them. Also, Keith is a contextualist. For some two contexts, C-LOW and C-HIGH,
- In C-LOW, “Keith knows that he has hands” is true.
- In C-HIGH, “Keith knows that he has hands” is false.
- In C-HIGH, Keith may appropriately state his contextualist theory.
- In C-HIGH, “Keith knows his contextualist theory” is true.
- In C-HIGH, “Keith knows that in C-LOW, ‘Keith knows that he has hands’ is true” is true.
- In C-HIGH, “Keith knows that he has hands” is true.
Why should we accept (3)? Jäger introduces the set-up thus:
Consider a conversational context in which the contextualist states his theory. Such contexts are paradigmatic epistemology or 'philosophy classroom' contexts in which sceptical hypotheses are salient and taken seriously.This appears to me to be mere assertion; why should classroom contexts be skeptical ones? I know that David Lewis said they were, but David Lewis said a lot of silly things in that paper. This just isn’t a commitment of contextualism per se. Contextualism is a linguistic thesis, made on the basis of, among other things, facts about linguistic use. If we were really taking skepticism seriously, we would not help ourselves to such facts. Some contexts in which epistemology of this sort is being performed—this one, for instance—are not very skeptical at all.
Actually, I think, there is a deeper problem for Jäger’s claim to (3). Contextualism is a controversial theory; lots of smart people think it’s wrong. It’s a theory that I accept, but I don’t think the acceptance here is a kind of outright belief, and I don’t think my statements of contextualism are appropriately regarded as assertions—as attempts to transmit knowledge. But the kind of “appropriate stating” at issue in (3) would have to be assertions in order for a knowledge norm of the latter to put any pressure on the move to (4). It’s far from obvious that anyone in ordinary contexts (let along skeptical ones) should go around asserting that contextualism is true. (And I say this as a contextualist! I think contextualism looks like the best theory. That doesn’t make it a thing to assert in ordinary contexts.)
So there are two pretty serious problems with premise (3). Now let’s set aside those problems for the purpose of further argument, and consider line (5). The inference from (4) to (5) is supposed to follow directly from the content of the contextualist theory. Jäger writes:
[Someone denying this step] would have to argue that the contextualist can legitimately deny [(5)], i.e. deny that he knows when he asserts his theory, in CHigh, that there are low-standards contexts in which (it is true to say that) he knows that he has hands. The claim that there are such quotidian contexts, however, is a cornerstone of classical, anti-sceptical forms of contextualism.I don’t feel the motivation here at all. Contextualism the linguistic thesis does not entail that Keith or anyone knows that he has hands; it doesn’t even entail that Keith or anyone has hands. (Obviously.) It is consistent with the truth of contextualism that you and I are brains in vats. So even if we became convinced that we could have high-standards knowledge of contextualism—say, because we have introspective access to meaning, and that access is more resistant to skeptical scenarios than perceptual knowledge—we could still abandon Jäger’s ship at the step to line (5). Sure, Keith knows-HIGH that contextualism is true; that doesn’t mean he knows-HIGH that he knows-LOW that he has hands—even granting whatever intra-context closure principle you want. We’d get that he knows-HIGH that in C-LOW, he’d be invoking a relatively weak standard if he said “I know I have hands”. It doesn’t follow that he knows whether he’d meet it.
So there are lots of ways to resist this argument.