An Argument that Jason Stanley is a Contextualist

After defining Fallibilism as the possibility of knowing p on the basis of evidence E where E is consistent with ~p  he says this:

“For example, a fallibilist maintains that I may know that I have hands, on the basis of evidence that is logically consistent with the remote possibility that I do not have hands, because I am dreaming after a particularly terrible accident.”

So here’s what the fallibilist maintains:  I may know that I have hands, on the basis of evidence that is logically consistent with the remote possibility that I do not have hands, because I am dreaming after a particularly terrible accident

So suppose the fallibilist wishes to assert what she maintains (either because like most philosophers she’s eager to assert what she thinks, or because someone says, “Hey, you’re a fallibilist, what do you maintain?”).  What shall she say?  It seems she should, according to Stanley, say this.

FU  “I may know that I have hands, on the basis of evidence that is logically consistent with the remote possibility that I do not have hands.”

Now suppose that our fallibilist reasonably believes (even knows, let’s say (let her know that she knows if need be)) she has hands.  Then there’s no “may” about it and she can say

FU2 “I  know that I have hands, on the basis of evidence that is logically consistent with the remote possibility that I do not have hands.”

Now given the conistency of her knowledge-grounding evidence with that possibility, what could possibly prevent the appropriateness of utterng FU2 from entailing the appropriateness of uttering

FU3 “I  know that I have hands, though there’s this remote possibility that I do not have hands.”

FU3 was obtained from FU2 by highlighting the bit after “FU2”, copying it, pasting it in front of “FU3” and replacing “on the basis of evidence that is logically consistent with the” with “though there’s this”.  But how could you object to *that*?  After all, if the possibility is logically consistent with my (knowledge-grounding) evidence, then, well, it’s *there*.  And we usually just make knowledge claims without stating the evidence they’re based on.  So the move from FU2 to FU3 seems perfectly harmless.
Now, Jason buys into the now-standard account of epistemic possibility: Consistency with what one knows (with a troubling psychological caveat we needn’t pursue).  So they want to “rule out” (such an odd notion to me) skeptical scenarios as even *possible* because inconsistent with knowledge (that’s overkill for sure).  But what an odd situation!  Recall Stanley’s definition of fallibilism:

“Fallibilism is the doctrine that someone can know that p, even though their evidence for p is logically consistent with the truth of not-p” (127).

So it appears that on Stanley’s model, my p-knowledge-grounding evidence doesn’t rule out a skeptical scenario S in which not-p, but, mirabile dictu, the knowledge I get from it does!

This is weird enough that I don’t think it’s going to be a good route to go to block the seemingly obvious move from FU to FU3.  But FU comes from the lips of Stanley himself and FU3 is a concessive knowledge attribution.

——————————————
[Brief Excursus]
Of course, Jason says more or less explicitly that CKA’s *can* express truths.

S1  “I believe that utterances of the sentences in (1) do in fact almost always express false propositions” (127, emphasis added).

S2  “What I will argue is that, when utterances of (1a) and (1c) express false propositions, the fact that they are false does not refute the fallibilist position” (127, emphasis added).

But if I read 2005 correctly, that’s just because the “mixed” variety (his 1b, 2b: “John K’s…but what I K….) possibly express truths (he accepts a pragmatic account here: Dougherty and Rysiew 2009 provide a unified account which explains all the infelicity as pragmatic).  And the case I’ve focused on here–the sober assertion of fallibilism–doesn’t seem to bear any relevent similarity to these case.

Also, I never noticed before the seeming admission that there are some felicitous non-mixed CKA’s.

S3  “This explains the typical oddity of utterances of these sentences” (128, emphasis added).

S4  “such utterances are almost always odd” (128).

Maybe he’s just playing it safe.
[End Brief Excursus]
———————————————

FU3 plausibly entails Jason’s

(5a) I know that I have hands, but I haven’t ruled out that I’m just a brain in a vat with no body at all.
FU3 doesnt mention “ruling out” but if you believe in “ruling out” then plausibly FU3 entails (5a).  And he thinks the natural way to understand “ruling out” is to know it’s not the case, which yields

(6a) I know that I have hands, but I don’t know that I’m not a brain in a vat with no body at all.
I don’t think “ruling out” is an epistemic notion.  I think it’s a completely pragmatic notion, something along the lines of S’s justifiedly believing p false and being such that further inquiry into p has negative expected utility.  I get off the train at (5a).  So I don’t need to endorse (6a).

However, it seems that Jason does.  If I’m right–it has not failed to occur to me that this will be disputed (nor has it failed to occur to me that the disputants might be correct)–then Jason’s definition of fallibilism commits him to (5a) and his understanding of “excludes” then commits him to (6a).

This is kind of ironic because he says “there are some positions that are versions of fallibilism that do entail the truth (and presumably the acceptability) of the sentences in (6).”  He notes that Nozick will be stuck with this but then claims “it is not the case that any non-contextualist account of knowledge that is fallibilist predicts that the sentences in (6) can be both true and felicitously assertable” (131).  From this and the preceding conclusion, it follows that Jason–who is clearly a fallibilist–must be a contextualist.  🙂


Comments

An Argument that Jason Stanley is a Contextualist — 7 Comments

  1. Hey Trent,

    It’s an interesting line of attack. It’s similar in some respects to Dylan Dodd’s criticism of Williamson in his PQ piece. Can you say more about the move from FU2 to FU3? You said, “So it appears that on Stanley’s model, my p-knowledge-grounding evidence doesn’t rule out a skeptical scenario S in which not-p, but, mirabile dictu, the knowledge I get from it does!”

    What if he says, “Yeah, but that’s what knowledge does for you–it closes off epistemic possibilities that were previously open. Sure, in some worlds you might think you’ve closed off a possibility but haven’t and in some of those worlds, you had the same evidence for your belief that you actually have. But, in this world, the world that you’re right in, you know p and so closed off the possibility that p. Seems strange, doesn’t it, to say that you didn’t rule out the possibility that ~p in coming to believe p, but you know that you’re right”.

    You didn’t say what Stanley should be a contextualist about. “Knows”, “Epistemically possible”, or both? (If there’s more to epistemic necessity than just knowledge, he could try to go contextualist about epistemic possibility while remaining invariantist and fallibilist about “knows” and knowledge.)

  2. Clayton, the quote in the second last sentence of Trent’s post, used as a premise to get the conclusion, concerns contextualism about ‘knows’.

    What I’m not sure about is why ‘there’s no “may” about it. I’d have thought all we get from FU together with my knowledge that I have hands, is the following

    FU2* I know that I have hands, on the basis of evidence that may be logically consistent with the remote possibility that I do not have hands.

  3. Aidan,

    I’m reading Jason’s “may” as metaphysical possibility. I.e fallibilism says that it’s possible that one can have knowledge under such conditions, because the nature of knowledge allows for it.

    So then if I think I know, I think think I’m in one of those (Kp & C) worlds (from which it follows (Kp & C), of course). If it helps, I take the fallibilist to be claiming that all (human, “earthly,” what have you) knowledge is fallible, so that [](Kp –> C).

  4. Clayton,

    1. If he says that, I’d say “Yes, it *does* seem strange. *Way* too strange!”

    2. I take the Unger 1975 line on “certain”. I think “all” means all and that’s all “all” means. Of course, I can *use* “all” to convey “all-in-domain-D” but that’s another matter. So I don’t endorse the strategy you mention, but I do think it’s more likely than the alternative. Even though I think it’s false, I wouldn’t be surprised if “possible” was context-sensitive in the relevant sense (of course it’s indexical, but that’s not relevant here). It would be much more surprising if “knows” turned out to be.

  5. Trent,

    Nice post. Briefly – I deny that one can go from the premise:

    My evidence is logically consistent with the proposition that I do not have hands.

    To the conclusion:

    It is possible that I do not have hands.

    or even to the conclusion:

    It is remotely possible that I do not have hands.

    The reason is that I think that “possible” in ordinary English rarely if ever expresses logical possibility. It almost always expresses either epistemic possibility or metaphysical possibility.

    The reason I say “such utterances are almost always odd” is that I was thinking of cases in which “possible” expresses logical possibility. In contexts in which “possible” expresses logical possibility, I am committed to the utterances being ok. I think this prediction is borne out by the facts. I think the only contexts in which “possible” expresses bare logical possibility in these kinds of constructions are when they are used by philosophers. And you *will* find philosophers saying that they see nothing wrong with CKAs. My view explains both why ordinary CKAs are odd, and why there are some philosophers who claim that they are ok. Ordinary CKAs are odd, because “possible” is read epistemically. Some philosophers find them ok, because they aren’t interpreting them as they are ordinarily interpreted, but are rather interpreting “possible” as logical possibility.

    (By “the remote possibility that I do not have hands” I meant to describe the closest possible world in which I do not have hands, i.e. the closest member of the proposition that I do not have hands, where propositions are conceived of as sets of possible worlds. I see now that was misleading terminology).

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