A Guide to My Contextualism Papers

[All the papers I’m about to mention are available on-line in one form or another here.]

This is not primarily a piece of self-promotion intended to get more people to read more of my work — though of course I’d be happy if it had that effect. No, it’s a piece of self-promotion intended to get folks who do want to read what I have to say about the case for contextualism to read the right things. It seems that many read (& assign) rather stale, old papers that have since been surpassed.

(I guess I have no right to be upset that people read the wrong things: If folks went to the on-line bibliography on contextualism that I myself put on the web, and read what I’ve designated as the “Main Works,” one paper they’d be directed to is one of my old ones. I have to update that page. I’ve been putting new stuff at the top of the page, but haven’t integrated anything from the last couple of years into the “Main Works.”)

I’m not talking here about the application of contextualism to skepticism. On that, people tend to read & assign the right work of mine: “Solving the Skeptical Problem,” Philosophical Review, 1995. Yes, that’s more than a decade old now, and I have more recent papers that advance the discussion in various ways. And, in fact, I really would like it if more folks would read those more recent papers — especially if it might head off some old criticisms that seem always to get repeated. In particular, if you’re at all inclined to mistakenly characterize the account of knowledge I use as a somewhat modified version of Nozick’s account (in fact, mine is what nowadays is called a “safety” account), to think my solution is shot down by the counter-examples to sensitivity accounts of knowledge, or to protest that the philosophy of language I bring to bear on the problem isn’t relevant to the epistemological problem of skepticism (“The real problem here concerns whether we can know things; not whether we can ever truthfully make claims of the form ‘I know that P’!”), you should read “Sosa, Safety, Sensitivity, and Skeptical Hypotheses.” And if you think the contextualist’s verdict on a debate between a skeptic (“You don’t know!”) and a Commonsense opponent of hers (“Oh yes I do!”) is that both are speaking the truth, and especially if you’re bothered by that verdict, you should read “Single Scoreboard Semantics.” But if you’re going to read just one thing on the application of contextualism to skepticism, “Solving the Skeptical Problem” is the right choice. (And I should add that while I’ve further defended and elaborated on my solution since SSP, for better or for worse, I don’t think I’ve changed my mind about anything significant in SSP.)

What I am talking about the defense of contextualism itself. On that, too many people seem to read and/or assign “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1992) and/or “Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense” (Blackwell Guide to Epistomology, 1999). I’ll put a few words about these papers below the fold, since there are parts of them that might still be useful in various ways. But the newer and better things to read are the following three papers.

“The Ordinary Language Basis for Contextualism and the New Invariantism,” Philosophical Quarterly, 2005. The basic argument for contextualism comes from how “know” gets used in ordinary language. This basic argument was [discussed (for those with low standards) / hinted at (for those with high)] in a very preliminary way in my old 1992 paper, CKA, but is given a much better treatment here: I describe what types of cases the contextualist appeals to, and why the contextualist is on such solid ground in putting forward the premises that drive the basic argument: that the positive claim of “knowledge” in the contextualist’s low-standards case and the denial of “knowledge” in the high-standards case are both true. Along the way, I argue against “Subject-Sensitive Invariantism,” an alternative to contextualism that’s been getting a lot of attention lately. If you haven’t read this paper (or heard an accurate account of its contents from someone who has), you just don’t understand what I base my contextualism on. (Incidentally, I’ve recently heard that this paper has been chosen by PQ as one of as one of 10 highlights of their past ten volumes, and, as such, it will soon be available even to non-subscribers free online from the Blackwells Synergy site for some yet-to-be-determined period.)

“Assertion, Knowledge, and Context,” Philosophical Review, 2002. This paper marries contextualism to the knowledge account of assertion, using each to support/defend the other. This paper also plays a role in what I called above the “basic argument” for contextualism. An old worry about that basic argument (mentioned, but not answered, already in my old 1992 paper) is that what the contextualist takes to be varying truth-conditions for knowledge attributions are in fact only varying warranted-assertability-conditions. While I do much to battle that worry in other work, it takes the knowledge account of assertion to make the most definitive case against it, so that part of the basic argument is executed here in AKC. Also, in part 2 of AKC, I give another positive argument for contextualism — this one utilizing the knowledge account of assertion as a key premise.

“’Bamboozled by Our Own Words’: Semantic Blindness and Some Objections to Contextualism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, forthcoming. This paper answers several objections to contextualism, including objections voiced by Stephen Schiffer and John Hawthorne.

So, a few words about the “stale, old” papers:

“Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1992. Part I presents a pair of cases illustrating the kind of variability in epistemic standards that contextualists typically appeal to – my “Bank Cases” – to explain what contextualism is, and to [hint at / discuss in a very preliminary way] the basic argument for contextualism. Since the basic case for contextualism has now been presented much more thoroughly in OLP and AKC (discussed above), this portion of the paper is obsolete. Part II discusses the relation between contextualism and the Relevant Alternatives account of knowledge, and may still be of current interest. Part III answers the most basic form of what I know call “Now You Know It, Now You Don’t” objections to contextualism. A more advanced treatment of such objections is now available in my appropriately titled “Now You Know It, Now You Don’t.” But for a hint at some even more advanced thoughts about such problems (which I haven’t got around to writing up) see my comment (the last comment listed, at least as of now) to this web post at Matt Weiner’s blog.

“Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense,” Blackwell Guide to Epistomology, 1999. Much of this is in service of the “basic argument,” and has been surpassed by OLB & AKC. But it does give a little bit of the history of contextualism (and proto-contextualism), and distinguishes contextualism from various other positions with which it might be confused, so it might still be of some use, especially to undergraduate students. (As a Guide paper, it was written with a special attempt to make it accessible.)


A Guide to My Contextualism Papers — 2 Comments

  1. Keith,
    You undervalue the “Explanation and defense” paper. Sure — it’s accessible and provides some history and context and that’s all to the good. Plus, it gets the argument started for those coming to the issue fresh. I think it’s good not only for undergraduates but for grad students starting out and for professionals who want to get started on questions like “what’s up with all this contextualism stuff anyway?”. Of course deeper discussions are found elsewhere (everyone will realize that and your guide here will serve as a pointer for some to the newer and deeper discussions). But that now “getting old” paper is a great starting point both because of the accessibility and because it partly presents contextualism as an overall view and not merely as an approach to skepticism (which, shockingly, doesn’t concern all philosophers the way it does us!).

  2. Hey, Fritz. Maybe I am drawing the line in the wrong place. (Or suggesting it be drawn in the wrong place: I only said “especially to” undergrads.) The “Explanation and Defense” might be a good choice for those who are looking for an introduction to contextualism — whether they’re undergrads, grads, or philosophers who work in other areas but want to know what’s up. (& thanks for the kind words about that piece.) Those who want to see the best case for contextualism (or at least the best case I have been able to put together: this is just a guide to my papers) before reaching a serious judgment on the matter themselves should see the more recent material, in my opinion.

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