What's Wrong with Contextualism, and a Noncontextualist Resolution of the Skeptical Paradox

Erkenntnis 61 (2/3):203 - 231 (2004)
Skeptics try to persuade us of our ignorance with arguments like the following: 1. I don't know that I am not a handless brain-in-a-vat [BIV]. 2. If I don't know that I am not a handless BIV, then I don't know that I have hands. Therefore, 3. I don't know that I have hands. The BIV argument is valid, its premises are intuitively compelling, and yet, its conclusion strikes us as a absurd. Something has to go, but what? Contextualists contend that an adequate solution to the skeptical problem must: (i) retain epistemic closure, (ii) explain the intuitive force of skeptical arguments by explaining why their premises initially seem so compelling, and (iii) account for the truth of our commonsense judgment that we do possess lots of ordinary knowledge. Contextualists maintain that the key to such a solution is recognizing that the semantic standards for 'knows' vary from context to context such that in skeptical contexts the skeptic's premises are true and so is her conclusion; but in ordinary contexts, her conclusion is false and so is her first premise. Despite its initial attractiveness, the contextualist solution comes at a significant cost, for contextualism has many counterintuitive results. After presenting the contextualist solution, I identify a number of these costs. I then offer a noncontextualist solution that meets the adequacy constraint identified above, while avoiding the costs associated with contextualism. Hence, one of the principal reasons offered for adopting a contextualist theory of knowledge -- its supposedly unique ability to adequately resolve the skeptical problem -- is undermined.
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