Epistemic contextualism: a normative approach
McKenna, Robert James
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I develop and argue for a version of epistemic contextualism - the view that the truth-values of ‘knowledge’ ascriptions depend upon and vary with the context in which they are uttered - that emphasises the roles played by both the practical interests of those in the context and the epistemic practices of the community of which they are part in determining the truth-values of their ‘knowledge’ ascriptions (the ‘basic contextualist thesis’). My favoured way of putting it is that the truth of a ‘knowledge’ ascription of the form ‘S knows that p’ requires that the subject of the ascription can rule out the relevant alternatives in which not-p, where the relevant alternatives are the ones that those in the ascriber’s context have a reason to consider. What alternatives those in the context have a reason to consider depends on their practical situation and on what alternatives are generally considered relevant within their community. I call this ‘interests contextualism’. The thesis splits into three parts. First, I deal with what I call ‘linguistic objections’, which purport to show that there’s no linguistic evidence that the expression ‘knows’ is context-sensitive (Hawthorne 2004; Stanley 2005a), and objections concerning the way ‘knows’ behaves in intra- and inter-contextual disagreement reports (Cappelen & Hawthorne 2009; MacFarlane 2005). I argue that there are a number of ways in which contextualists can deal with these objections. Consequently, they provide no reason to reject contextualism. Second, there are a number of ways of going beyond the basic contextualist thesis, and I argue that the best way is along the lines indicated above, viz. interests contextualism. In the process I articulate a number of desiderata for a contextualist account of the features of context that are responsible for contextual variation in the truth-values of ‘knowledge’ ascriptions. I argue that, unlike its main rival - which I call ‘conversational contextualism’ (Blome-Tillmann 2009a; Cohen 1999; DeRose 2009; Lewis 1996) - interests contextualism can satisfy all of the desiderata. Consequently, interests contextualism is preferable to conversational contextualism. Third, I argue that there is good reason to prefer interests contextualism to its noncontextualist rivals, strict invariantism (Brown 2006; Hazlett 2009; Pritchard 2010; Rysiew 2001), sensitive invariantism (Fantl & McGrath 2009; Hawthorne 2004; Stanley 2005a) and relativism (MacFarlane 2005; Richard 2004). The objections dealt with in the first part are meant to provide the main reason to prefer a sort of relativism to interests contextualism. Consequently, the upshot of the first part is that relativism is off the table. The considerations that tell in favour of interests contextualism and against sensitive invariantism are of two types. First, I argue that interests contextualism can deal with a wider range of cases than sensitive invariantism. Second, I argue that the influential account of the function of ‘knowledge’ ascriptions developed in Edward Craig (1990) tells against sensitive invariantism and in favour of interests contextualism. I also argue that the second consideration tells against strict invariantism as much as sensitive invariantism. Consequently, I conclude that interests contextualism is preferable to all of its rivals.