Christopher Robichaud
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Contextualism in epistemology is the thesis that the truth conditions of knowledge attributions are context-sensitive, where facts about both the subject's context and the attributor's context are relevant. This view allows for two persons, say, Jones and Wilson, both to be speaking truly when Jones says of Smith at time t 'Smith knows p', for some proposition p, and Wilson says of Smith at time t 'Smith doesn't know p', for the same proposition p. The explanation offered is that Jones and Wilson do not share the same context, and hence different standards are appropriate for evaluating the truth of their claims. In this case, the epistemic facts concerning Smith satisfy the conditions determined by Jones's standards but do not satisfy those determined by Wilson's. As such, increasing attention is being directed to the potential contributions this view makes to the theory of knowledge---particularly its strategies in tackling some of the thornier issues of skepticism. Contextualists concede that skeptical claims are true in contexts where the standards for knowledge have been raised (often through the mentioning of a skeptical hypothesis); however, they also maintain that in ordinary contexts where the standards for knowledge are lower, the truth of our knowledge attributions is preserved. In other words, skeptics cannot, on this view, claim that our ordinary knowledge attributions are false. Furthermore, contextualists explain the persuasive pull of skeptical arguments by appealing to our failure to recognize that a shift in context has occurred. The primary aim of my thesis, then, is to examine the specific contextualist positions advanced by David Lewis, Keith DeRose, and Stewart Cohen---the three most prominent endorsers of the view---as well as to address some of the more worrisome critiques of contextualism. My investigation focuses on assessing the plausibility of conceiving knowledge attributions as context-sensitive and on assessing the promise of this account for solving the problem of skepticism. Since the literature surrounding this issue is relatively new, my thesis not only advances the debate, but offers a guide to it as well
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