Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Christoph Jäger on knowledge, contextualism and assertion

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,
  1. In C-LOW, “Keith knows that he has hands” is true.
  2. In C-HIGH, “Keith knows that he has hands” is false.
  3. In C-HIGH, Keith may appropriately state his contextualist theory.
  4. In C-HIGH, “Keith knows his contextualist theory” is true.
  5. In C-HIGH, “Keith knows that in C-LOW, ‘Keith knows that he has hands’ is true” is true.
  6. In C-HIGH, “Keith knows that he has hands” is true.
But (6) contradicts (2), so something is wrong. Jäger says that it’s either contextualism or the knowledge norm that has to go. The first two premises are standard contextualist fare. A modest closure principle is invoked in the step from (5) to (6)—but it looks fine. The move from (3) to (4) follows from Jäger's version of the knowledge norm of assertion, which I do not contest. There are two action points here: the moves to lines (3) and (5). We consider them in turn.

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.


  1. Great post, I completely agree. :)

  2. I have a paper on this topic (you can find it on my academia page). Basically, in terms of the argument as you present it, I would say I defended a version in which the controversial premises 3 and 5 become conditional claims, whose antecedent is "If contextualism can provide a solution to the problem of skepticism.." and then the rest is unchanged. Then you add "Contextualism can provide a solution to the problem of skepticism", as an assumption for reductio (I wish I could have been this clear in the paper!). I don't expect many contextualists to be moved by my line of argument, but hopefully, since crucial premises and conclusion are weaker, it can at least have a higher degree of plausibility than Jaeger's argumenent.
    About the line of reply 'philosophers do not make real assertions'; I find it very interesting, but I believe it is also much more radical than you assume. Philosophers's statements (let me use "statement" as neutral term for the use of an indicative sentences) have the appearance of assertions. There is usually no explicit indication that they are not to be taken as such. If, nonetheless, the context makes these statements count as something other than assertions, I expect the same to happen in many other contexts. Many other acedemic disciplines, to begin with, would be naturally taken to present similar degrees of uncertainty. But the same goes for religious and political discourse. And moral discourse. And for the statements of lawyers in court. And for most statements about sport, at least the ones I make. There is a risk that on this picture, if assertion is "the attempt to transmit knowledge", assertion is going to be a very rare commodity. That would save the knowledge norm, but it would be a pyrrhic victory.
    Of course, the contextualist could say that in most contexts the standards are low enough that we count as knowing the content of our statements. But then I don't see why philosophy should be any different.

  3. Michael: Thanks, I thought you might. :)

    Daniele: I'll have a look at your paper, thanks. Still, I'm skeptical (hah!) that this kind of argument will work. Contextualism might "provide a solution" without entailing that we have hands -- it can do so by showing how ordinary knowledge attributions *could* be true if the external world cooperated in a certain way. And I'm still worried about the assumption that the contexts in which contextualism is discussed are skeptical ones.

    With respect to whether we assert our philosophical theories, it really does not seem to me very radical to suppose that we don't. When dealing in controversial matters, most of us hedge *all the time*. Look at your comment, for example, which I think is written in a perfectly standard philosophical style. There are lots of hedging phrases like "I believe...", "...have the appearance...", "I expect...", "...would be naturally taken...", "there is a risk that..." I think we do things like this *all the time*, and I think that it signals that we're recognizing that we're dealing with difficult questions, and are merely tentatively offering the best ideas we can think of. Of course, some philosophers state their views more baldly than others. Probably some do often go around asserting controversial theories. I don't mind the consequence that, if they don't know the theories -- which in most cases, I expect they don't -- they violate a norm of assertion.