Contextualism, Relevant Alternatives, and Closure

One of the virtues touted by contextualists for their view is its capacity to preserve closure. But suppose one begins from a relevant alternatives perspective, and gives up closure because of it. One can strain to regain closure, as Stine does, but there are two problems here. First, there is a deep problem with a relevant alternatives theory that embraces closure, as I argue here. The second point is the motivation for embracing closure. As Mark Heller argues, in “Relevant Alternatives and Closure,” (AJP 99), the charge that closure must be abandoned shouldn’t be surprising if you’re attracted to modal epistemologies such as relevant alternatives theories. After all, quite a few of our well-entrenched first-order rules have to be abandoned in modal contexts as well–consider, for example, the failure of hypothetical syllogism for subjunctives. A RAT might go Stine’s way to avoid a loss of closure, but it is hard to see why one would be motivated by relevant alternatives considerations to do so.

The same points hold of contextualist theories, I think. Contextualism itself provides no special motivation for closure; it merely accommodates the view of those who are convinced of closure independently of their attraction to contextualism.

Here’s an interesting thought, however. If Heller is right, there are positive reasons to deny closure if one’s epistemology is modal, since the same reasons for abandoning some standard first-order principles apply to closure as well (namely, the shift between which worlds are relevant when semantically evaluating the conclusions of each argument). But then we should expect RAT’s who are also contextualists to be anti-closure contextualists.

I think I have an explanation. Those attracted to closure are so attracted on the basis of considerations that appeal to factors other than those at play in relevant alternative theories. For example, perhaps one accepts closure on the basis of broadly evidentialist considerations, and then transports that commitment into one’s explicit theory that embraces both the ideas of contextualism and the relevant alternatives theory. If I’m right, there’s a moral to this story, but it’s so obvious I won’t mention it.


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