Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Diary of a Narcissist

This is a recent diary entry by Reginald, a confused narcissist. 
Dear Diary,
I am perturbed. As you know, I've long thought that, if I'm not perfection itself, I must at least be the next best thing to it. I thank Providence every day for so far elevating me above the common man. It is no exaggeration to say that hitherto, I have counted myself among the very most beautiful and significant people in the world. But today I received a terrible shock. While searching the internet for further discussions of me, I happened across a paper by a philosopher called David Kaplan. What I found there shook my deepest convictions to the core. Kaplan argues that certain words—'demonstratives' or 'indexicals', he calls them—are context sensitive; that is to say, the referent of these terms can vary according to the conversational context in which they're used. My first thought, on reading this, was that it seemed like an interesting and plausible semantic claim. The referent of the word 'that', for example, is simply whatever it is at which my flawless finger happens to be pointing when I speak.
But that isn't all.[*] It's one thing to recognise the general semantic framework—it's quite another to make particular entries in the list of context-dependent terms. Among Kaplan's list of context-dependent terms are the very dearest and most important to me! He includes on his list, for example, such touchstones as 'I' and 'me'! Can you imagine, diary? I—Reginald the all-right—dependent on such contingencies as conversational contexts? Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that anyone would so trivialise me. Needless to say, I am deeply shaken. Can I really accept that I am so unimportant? That there is nothing special about me, but rather than I'm just whoever happens to be speaking in a given conversation? The thought terrifies me. Tomorrow I shall read works by Gareth Evans and Christopher Peacocke to see if they might restore me to the glory I thought I deserved.

Reginald is confused, and it's pretty easy to see what the problem is. He's very bad at the use--mention distinction. At times, in the passage above, he is using words like 'I' and 'me', thus talking about himself; at other times he's merely mentioning them, thus talking about certain English words. Kaplan gives a context-sensitive theory about the word 'I'; this isn't a theory about me or Reginald or anybody else. Saying that 'I' just picks out whoever happens to be speaking isn't tantamount to saying that anybody is unimportant. So much is, I take it, pretty obvious.

Nevertheless, when epistemologists start thinking about contextualism about 'knows'---roughly, the thesis that 'knows' is like words like 'I' and 'me' in that its referent depends on the conversational context---the corresponding point is not always quite so obvious. I have often encountered a perceived tension between contextualism about 'knows' and the idea that knowledge is important. I encounter this perception more often in informal conversations than in print, but Alvin Goldman does give a brief expression to a version of it when he writes:
A popular view in contemporary epistemology (with which I have much sympathy) is that knowledge has an important context-sensitive dimension. The exact standard for knowledge varies from context to context. Since it seems unlikely that natural kinds have contextually variable dimensions, this renders it dubious that any natural kind corresponds to one of our ordinary concepts of knowledge.
I have seen a draft of a paper in which Dani Rabinowitz defends a version of Goldman's point in more detail.

Assuming that the 'popular view' in question is contextualism, Goldman's fallacy is the same as Reginald's: it is a use–mention error. There is no straightforward connection between the semantic properties of the English word 'knows' and the metaphysical properties of knowledge. (Compare this to the fact that there is no straightforward connection between Kaplan's observations about indexicals and Reginald's beliefs about himself.)

[*] [Had he been more fluent in the use-mention distinction, Reginald would probably have written, 'but "that" isn't all'. (Or perhaps he wouldn't have written the entry at all.) --ed.] 


  1. There is a non-absurd argument one could make to connect the view under discussion with the worry Goldman describes (though I do think you are right that there is a lot of slippage between contextualism about "knows" and some sort of relativism about knowledge). The argument, hastily constructed, would be something like this:

    If "knows" is context sensitive (in such-and-such a way), then our talk involving "knows" picks out different relations in different contexts. But then, talk of "knowledge" isn't talk of one specific thing, it is talk of a large family of relations. Important role Q can't be played by a family of relations, and the appeal to contextualism only addresses the problems in epistemology if we deny a unique epistemologically privileged context. So, contextualists will have to abandon a view of knowledge that delivers on role Q.

    This is hasty and outline-y, but I think that is the sort of (more legitimate) worry behind an apparently reginald-ish complaint about contextualism.

    1. All I mean to be saying here is that there is a sort of worry lurking behind the use-mention error you describe. Maybe it isn't a very strong challenge, or maybe it winds up not mattering much. But, once "knowledge" is treated as context sensitive, what it means when you say "the metaphysical properties of knowledge" depends on what context you are writing that in. And, depending on the details of the contextualism being proffered, there may be lots of different things picked out by "knowledge" as uttered by philosophers in the seminar room, and those things may have differing metaphysical features.

    2. Thanks Lewis. There's definitely something right about this, but I think there are also a couple of things wrong about it. For one --- although I'm not sure how important I think this point is --- it's not a commitment of contextualism that there be a plethora of 'knows' relations. One might think, for instance, that 'knows' always expresses knowledge, but that knowledge has an extra argument place that is often filled by context.

      I think you're right that (depending on just how the above point might be implemented), given contextualism, philosophical statements using the word 'knowledge' are likely to be context-sensitive. But I don't see how that's meant to be any kind of objection to the propositions expressed by them. Suppose, for example, that (a) one is a contextualist, and (b) one is impressed when hearing Timothy Williamson utter the words "knowledge is the most basic factive mental state". Maybe one should think that TW's sentence is context-sensitive. No problem. Just make sure to attend to it in its proper context.

      Here's another way of putting it: just because I agree with Williamson that knowledge is the most basic factive mental state (or pick your favourite principle about knowledge), that doesn't mean I'm committed to any kind of metalinguistic generality like "knowledge is the most basic factive mental state" expresses a truth in every context. After all, I think you're a cool dude, but I think plenty of instances of "you're a cool dude" are false.