Knowledge Attributions and the Psychology of Reasoning: A Case against Contextualism

Prolegomena 12 (2):381-412 (2013)

Zvonimir Čuljak
University of Zagreb
Epistemic contextualism in the works of S. Cohen, K. DeRose, D. Lewis and others amounts to the semantic thesis that the truth conditions of knowledge attributions or denials vary according to the contextually shifting standards for knowledge attributions and to the indexical character of the predicate “knows”. This semantic variation is primarily due to the pragmatic features of the attributor context, depending on “what is at stake” for the attributor. In this paper contextualism is confronted with some invariantist objections. These objections are supported, first, by the considerations of the alleged, but indeed not purely the semantic or meta-linguistic character of the main contextualist theses: it is argued that contextualism unavoidably descend to the object level, making certain substantive claims about knowledge, and that the ambiguous evidence of contextualist thought-experiments make the truth-oriented or intellectualist invariantist alternative a more plausible and more coherent view. Secondly, they are supported by the well-known empirical evidence from cognitive psychology by e.g. P. Wason, P. Johnson-Laird, D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, A. Tversky as well as by P. Cheng, J. Holland, K. Holyoak, R. Nisbett and P. Thagard. Those findings demonstrated that in various contexts people mostly do not reason according to logical or probabilistic rules, but according to some contextually convenient reasoning patterns, the reliance on which may lead to systematic logical or probabilistic errors. Their inferential performance has been obviously assessed according to the logical or probabilistic rules as invariant standards for the attribution of logical or probabilistic knowledge. Accordingly, it is argued in this paper that the change of truth conditions and truth values of respective inferential knowledge attributions or denials is sensitive to the changing facts in the subject context, and may not be explained by the shifting standards for knowledge attributions. These standards remain the same across the contexts even when practices in different contexts in fact follow some other reasoning rules . So, the varying truth conditions of the knowledge attributions in such cases depend only on the variations in the subject context.
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