A Brief History of Contextualism

Back when I wrote “Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense” (in Greco, Sosa, ed., THE BLACKWELL GUIDE TO EPISTEMOLOGY, 1999), I included a section called, “A Brief History of Contextualism.” And it was indeed brief! I’m now writing a section of a paper with that same section title. I’m still trying to be brief, but am trying to update and, hopefully, improve my account. I’m wondering how my new history strikes others: Does my sense of how things went match that of other? Any complaints, suggestions, comments? So I’ll put my draft of that section below the fold.

I should say that (as was the case in my earlier paper referenced above) I discuss David Annis’s “A Contextualist Theory of Epistemic Justification” in another section of the paper.

9. A Brief History of Contextualism

Theories according to which there are two senses of “know” — a “low”, “weak” or “ordinary” sense on the one hand, and a “high”, “strong”, or “philosophical” sense, which is much more demanding, on the other, can be viewed as limiting cases of contextualist views. Such a view was advanced, for instance, by Norman Malcolm in his 1952 “Knowledge and Belief.” For reasons I’ll touch on in section 14 below, current contextualist theories don’t hold that there are just two different sets of epistemic standards governing the truth conditions of knowledge attributions, but rather posit such a wide variety of different standards. In looking for the history of contextualism, we will be looking for views that posit such a wide variety of standards.

In important work on knowledge and skepticism in the early and mid 1970’s, which culminated in his 1975 book, Ignorance, Peter Unger argued that, in order to really know something, one must be in a very strong epistemic position with respect to that proposition — so strong, in fact, that it would be impossible for anyone ever to be better positioned with respect to any matter than you are now with respect to the matter in question. Though the terminology wasn’t in place yet, largely because the contextualist alternative to it wasn’t in place yet, what Unger was there defending was skeptical invariantism. It was a form of invariantism because, so far as their truth conditions go, Unger claimed that a single set of epistemic standards governed attributions of knowledge, in whatever context they were uttered. And it was skeptical invariantism because those standards were held to be very demanding. (Non-skeptical invariantism, then, is invariantism that keeps the standards governing the truth conditions of knowledge attributions constant, but meetably low.) And Unger drew the skeptical conclusions that were naturally implied by such a stance. Importantly, Unger did admit that varying standards for knowledge govern our use of sentences of the form, “S knows that P”, but did not endorse contextualism, because Unger claimed that these varying standards were only standards for whether it was appropriate to say that S knows; the truth conditions for the sentence, as I’ve already noted, were, according to Unger, constant, and very demanding. Thus, according to “early Unger,” the skeptic is right when she says we don’t know, and we are saying something false (though perhaps appropriate) when, even in ordinary, non-philosophical discussions, we claim to know this or that. This position that we are calling “Classical” invariantism – invariantism about truth conditions (whether this invariantism is skeptical like Unger’s or non-skeptical), combined with variable standards for warranted assertability – is the great rival to contextualism. The “rival” came first, however: It was partly in response to this “invariantist” theory of Unger’s that the early contextualist views of the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s — like that expressed by David Lewis in a short section of his (1979: 354-55) and in contextualist versions of the Relevant Alternatives account of knowledge (RA) — were developed.

Most of the prominent examples of contextualism during this time were instances of RA. But RA needn’t be a contextualist view, and the contextualist aspect of contextualist versions of RA was not being separated out for explicit separate discussion and critical comparison with invariantism. We will discuss RA, and the conditions under which it is a contextualist view, in the next section.

Later, Barry Stroud, in Chapter 2 of his prominent 1984 The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, while not advocating skeptical invariantism, did seek to defend the view by appealing to Unger’s idea that the varying standards which can seem to govern the truth conditions of knowledge attributions might instead just govern their conditions of warranted assertability.

Unger’s 1984 book Philosophical Relativity contained what was at that time — and for some time to come, for that matter — the most complete exposition of the contextualist view. But while this book represented a change of mind for Unger from his skeptical writings of his Ignorance period, “middle Unger” was not advocating contextualism in Philosophical Relativity. Instead, he defended the “relativist” conclusion that contextualism and his earlier invariantist views which led to skepticism were equally good theories, and that there simply is no fact of the matter as to which view is correct. To my knowledge, it was here that the terms “contextualism” and “invariantism” were first used as we are using them here, to label just these positions, and, more importantly, it was here that these rival positions received their first careful expositions. And in making his case that these two alternatives fought each other to a tie, Unger began the process of identifying the lines of argument that can be used to defend and attack each position. Unger’s relativism, defended, as it was, by parity considerations, according to which the advantages and disadvantages of contextualism and invariantism balance each other out in such a way that there is no winner, is a precarious view to defend: Any contextualist who succeeds in defeating invariantism will conquer Unger’s relativism as an automatic corollary, and the same will happen for any invariantist who produces a successful argument against contextualism. Thus, it was perhaps no surprise that Unger quickly got off of that fence. With his (1986), “The Cone Model of Knowledge,” “late Unger” finally cast his lot with contextualism, but did little to counter his earlier arguments that invariantism is the equal of contextualism. Struggling against the invariantist rival that Unger set up remains a main task of contextualism.

Unger then largely left epistemology to pursue work in other areas of philosophy, but thanks mostly to Stewart Cohen, who defended contextualism in a series of important papers, beginning with his (1986), the issue was kept alive and kicking.

My sense is that contextualism grew greatly in notoriety throughout the 1990s, becoming a very well-known and often-studied topic in epistemology. The causes for this, in addition to Cohen’s continuing work, are too many and too complex for me to give anything remotely approaching a good account of them here, but surely prominent among them is the fact that one of the most respected figures in the philosophy of language, and in philosophy generally, David Lewis, wrote a prominent paper from a contextualist perspective, “Elusive Knowledge” (1996).

My general sense is that so far in the decade of the 2000s, the level of interest in contextualism has remained quite high, but that more of the attention it has been receiving has been in the form of resistance to the view, as new rivals to contextualism, particularly subject-sensitive invariantism and relativism, have arisen, and as general ideas about how context-sensitive pieces of natural language behave have been put forward and applied to epistemic contextualism, often by those who think “knows” doesn’t behave much like a context-sensitive term.


A Brief History of Contextualism — 5 Comments

  1. Hi Keith, this is very good and useful, but it has a glaring omission: your work! It is awkward to write a history of a part of philosophy that one is a major contributor to, but no history of contextualism in the last quarter of the 20th century can hope to be adequate without mentioning the big 3 of the view, and you do mention 2 of the 3 above (Cohen and Lewis). I don’t know enough about your own development of the view, though I do know of the effect of Nozick’s visit at UCLA when you were in grad school. Maybe including a description of how your own contextualist ideas first formed would be a useful addition.

  2. Actually, Nozick didn’t come to UCLA while I was there — to the best of my recollection. I don’t believe I ever got to meet the man. What happened was Kripke came to UCLA & gave his “Nozick bashing” lecture.

  3. Keith,

    I agree with Jon that you have to mention your Phil Review paper. My sense of the history is that your paper jump started a whole new wave of interest and a whole new level of discussion. The way you framed the issues there, the way you related the view to past relevant alternatives approaches, and then your ideas about how to employ some of Nozick’s mechanics without denying closure, all contributed to why that happened.

    I don’t know how you want to say that in your own piece, but if you don’t then you should just omit that section altogether. A history that leaves out your contributions would not be merely incomplete– it would be distorting.

  4. Now it looks like I posted the section just to get people to say I have to put myself in there. I don’t have a problem with mentioning myself, in addition to Stew’s continue work, at that spot.

    But I’m wondering mostly about my general sense of how the topic progressed — and whether others have the same sense: contextualism existing in 70s in the form of contextualist versions of RA, but not really being disentangled from RA (which can also come in invariantist forms) so that the contextualism itself was a subject of evaluation; the view being identified and addressed on its own in the 80s, with considerations for & against starting to be identified; the topic taking off in the 90s.

    It’s interesting to see how topics/views pass in & out of favor in our field. I don’t really have that good a sense of what things were like in the 80s: I wasn’t as plugged into the philsophical scene while I was in grad school (89-90 was my last year), as I was in the 90s, so I feel a little unsure about comparisons. But I do remember looking at one of those Blackwell philosophy reference works from the early 90s (91 or 92, maybe?): I think it was edited by Dancy, and was called something like the “Companion” to epistemology. Anyway, as I remember, it was a big ol’ book with mostly short little articles, so it had LOTS of articles — like hundreds, I think. But, it seemed, nothing on contextualism. That would have been unlikely of such a book if it were done at the end of that decade, I think.

  5. Keith,

    My sense is that you are right about the history and the relation to RA theories. Here is something you don’t mention, but that I think is another salient feature of the history of the topic: Once contextualism did come clearly into focus, almost all of the early discussion was around its adequacy as a response to skepticism. In fact, in those days people hardly made the distinction between contextualism as a reply to skepticism and contextualism as a semantic thesis. As things developed, though, people talked less and less about the former and a lot more about the latter. So, for example, the Stanley and Hawthorne books. By now it is clear that contextualism might be right as a semantic thesis about “knows” even if it does not give us an adequate answer to skepticism (that is my view, for example). Another aspect of the discussion you might mention is that contextuali began to be offered as a solution to problems other than skepticism, so for example Cohen on the lottery problem and Heller on the generality problem.

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