The skeptic claims that we know much less than we think that we do. Take the following argument for skepticism:
(1) I do not know that I am radically deceived by an evil demon.
(2) If I do not know that I am radically deceived by an evil demon, then I do not know that I have hands.
(3) Therefore, I do not know that I have hands.
This type of argument can be run for nearly every contingent proposition, thus threatening our belief that we know a great deal of propositions. The premises seem true, yet the conclusion seems false – the puzzle of skepticism is the result.
Epistemic contextualism is an attempt to offer a satisfying response to this puzzle in having the result that most of our everyday knowledge ascriptions are correct and by giving an explanation as to why the puzzle arises.
This solution claims that the word ‘know’ is context sensitive – that ‘know’ means different things in different contexts or that it has a different semantic value in different contexts (its contribution to the proposition expressed varies according to context). In this way ‘know’ is like the comparative adjectives ‘tall’, ‘rich’, and ‘flat’. The standard that these terms invoke is dependent upon the context of the attribution – it is the ascriber’s standards that matter. In an everyday context when someone utters the sentence ‘a 6’ person is tall’ he expresses a truth, whereas when someone in a basketball context utters that same sentence he expresses a falsehood. The standard picked out by ‘tall’ differs in these contexts.
The idea is that in cases where S has a true belief that p, the truth-value of the sentence ‘S knows that p’ can vary according to the epistemic standard invoked by the context of attribution. Contexts will differ as to the relation one must be in to a proposition (how justified one must be or how reliable one must be, etc.) in order to count as knowing a proposition. In everyday contexts, the standard for knowledge is relaxed so that most of our knowledge attributions are true. The sentences, “S knows he has hands”, “S knows he ate cereal for breakfast”, etc. all come out true. In epistemological contexts where skeptical worries are present, the standards for knowledge are much more stringent so that those same knowledge attributions are false, those same sentences now express falsehoods.
Contextualists differ as to what features of contexts are responsible for the disparate standards which they invoke. Some appeal to which alternatives are relevant, others to whether the belief in question tracks the truth, but these details need not bother us here.
Applied to our argument above, the contextualist can affirm (1) – (3) in some contexts (high-standards contexts) while denying the conclusion, (3), in ordinary contexts. (1) is true in high-standards contexts, since in such contexts the very possibility of error is enough to destroy knowledge and it is possible that we are radically deceived by an evil demon, but it is false in everyday contexts. Since the mere contemplation or assertion of (1) is often seen as sufficient to raise the standards of the context by contextualists, this explains why (1) seems true to most people – where (1) is asserted the context shifts so as to make it express a truth. (2) is true in all contexts, according to the contextualist, and this also accords with common intuitions. There is a slight nuance, however, since (2) is true relative to a context, since in any context where one does not know the antecedent, one also does not know the consequent. (3) is true in high-standards contexts since the standards of knowledge are high and there is a possibility that I do not have hands. However, in ordinary, low-standards contexts, (3) will be false since one is sufficiently justified in such contexts to know that one has hands. This accords with our intuitions that we typically do know a lot of things. Whereas other responses to skepticism are forced to deny at least one of the propositions (1) – (3), contextualists can affirm (1) – (3), with some context sensitivity additions, while at the same time denying the skeptical conclusion (3), as it concerns our everyday knowledge ascriptions.
Thus, according to contextualism, the skeptic’s denial that we know various things is actually compatible with our ordinary claims to know those very things. The claim is that an appreciation of the context shifts makes the very puzzle disappear – everybody wins. In addition, contextualism credits most of our knowledge attributions with truth. In ordinary contexts, assertions that we know a great variety of things are true, and in skeptical contexts the assertion that we do not know these very things is also true. As such, this answer takes seriously the use in speech and thought of the word ‘know’, and claims its correctness in part on this basis.
While contextualism does have its appeal, it is not a satisfactory response to the skeptical puzzle. First, there are worries concerning the plausibility of this response to our puzzle. Contextualism has the result that many English speakers are not competent in their understanding and use of the word ‘know’. This can be seen in their reactions to sentences they once affirmed yet now deny. If I affirm the sentence, “a 6’ person is tall” in an ordinary context and then deny that sentence in a basketball context, there is no fear that I have contradicted myself and it is clear that I meant different things when I uttered this sentence in different contexts (similarly for other indexicals). Further, it is quite easy to clarify what I meant in uttering the sentence in each context (He is tall for a human, he is not tall for a basketball player). However, if I affirm the sentence, “I know I have hands” in a ordinary context and then deny that sentence in a high-standards context, I do feel as though I have contradicted myself. Further, there is no obvious way of clarifying my earlier claim so as to demonstrate that it was correct and distinguishing it from my later claim. The modifiers, “by low-standards”, “pretty-much knows”, “knows for certain”, all seem inadequate to the task. As such, contextualism seems forced to posit semantic blindness regarding the working of ‘know’ in the English language. This is a significant cost.
Aside from worries about the plausibility of contextualism, there are worries concerning its treatment of skepticism. In the first place, contextualism concedes to the skeptic that in some contexts we don’t know very much at all. This is a significant concession, and it is far from clear that it is one that should be made. Further, contextualism fails to address the heart of skepticism. The interesting skeptical challenge is not that we do not know very much in extremely high-standards contexts, but that we do not know very much according to ordinary standards for knowledge. Here, the contextualist merely asserts that we do typically meet such standards and that our everyday knowledge ascriptions are correct. However, no account is given as to why it is that we meet these standards. A successful response to skepticism would show how it is that we typically meet the ordinary standards for knowledge, yet such an account is not given by contextualists. As such, contextualism fails to address skepticism in an important way.