Just finished a directed readings section on contextualism and invariantism, and I realized once more that the taxonomies are confusing here and that students need a lot of help sorting out the epistemological significance of the debates, regardless of how easy or difficult the issues might be if one is interested primarily in philosophy of language. So here’s a quick thought or two on the subject.
As is common knowledge by now, the distinction is a semantic one, but the literature is driven by a different factor at this point. The driving force in the literature is, I think, the issue of pragmatic encroachment. The key thought experiments (Keith’s bank case, Cohen’s airport case, McGrath&Fantl’s train case) all argue for pragmatic encroachment, and the invariantist responses to contextualist conclusions drawn from the central cases are designed to make a place for pragmatic encroachment. So when students read, e.g., Earl Conee’s defense of invariantism in the Debates volume, they find the discussion perplexing, because Earl isn’t a fan of pragmatic encroachment, so far as I can tell. Thus, when trying to organize the literature, Earl’s defense doesn’t seem to fit with the defenses of invariantism one finds in Hawthorne, Stanley, and McGrath/Fantl.
There’s also the problem of the semantic taxonomy, noted earlier in this blog here and here about how to separate relativism from contextualism and other deviations from the kind of semantic theory appropriate to a logically perfect language, and there is a new piece by John MacFarlane here that muddies the taxonomical waters even more. These aspects are important and interesting in their own right, but the fundamental issue here for epistemology, as I see it, is the question of pragmatic encroachment.
Moreover, to the degree that pragmatic factors intrude into the nature of knowledge, to that extent it isn’t what you know that counts. That is, from a value-driven perspective on cognition, the issues of what to believe and on what basis cognition is to guide action, pragmatic encroachment stories incline us to look elsewhere than to knowledge for answers to these questions. The idea here is similar to the paralysis objection often voiced against Pyrrhonian skepticism: if we shouldn’t form beliefs, then on what basis do we act? Similarly for pragmatic encroachment. If, to put the point in a way inattentive to the differences between various pragmatic encroachment theories, the more important an issue, the less you know, then knowledge won’t provide an adequate basis for determining how to act. That may be exactly right, of course, and standard decision theory yields just such a conclusion, but it runs contrary to ordinary understandings of how people deliberate. Ordinary deliberation is typically described by my students, at least, in something like the following way: resolution of the stuff that is unsettled (the stuff about which we deliberate) is achieved by first figuring out what is settled for us and then figuring out the implications of this settled stuff for the unsettled stuff. Put into epistemological terms, it is very natural to employ the concept of knowledge: deliberation involves sorting things into what you know and what you don’t, and trying to figure out what to do on the basis of what you know to be true. But if the class of things you know diminishes as the issue increases in significance, the limit toward which the progression heads is one where the basis is empty, leading to the same paralysis worry the Pyrrhonians had to face.
One final thought. If one adopts my perspective on the literature here, the connection to skepticism is not quite as clear. For suppose one develops a pragmatic encroachment theory of some sort. Depending on the pragmatic factor in question, one may be able to derive something like a standard contextualist response to the skeptic. For example, suppose the more you care about an issue, the harder it is to know; and suppose reflecting on whether you can know anything is a way of showing how much you care whether you can know anything. Then something like Lewis’s elusive knowledge result might obtain: reflecting on whether you know threatens to eliminate the possibility of knowing. But other kinds of pragmatic encroachment seem to have a less natural connection to skepticism. If the practical costs of being wrong drive the theory, there is less reason to suppose that the context in which one is being pressed by a skeptic or in which one is reflecting in a philosophy class about arguments for skepticism is a context in which one knows little or nothing. Such contexts don’t raise the practical stakes at all–they just make you worry that you might be wrong. For such a worry to form a happy alliance with a theory to yield a context in which the skeptic wins requires a carefully crafted form of pragmatic encroachment theory, one not obviously elicitable from the paradigm examples used to support the need for pragmatic encroachment (e.g., the bank case, the airplane case, the train case). I’m not suggesting that pragmatic encroachers don’t address this issue or have nothing to say on this point. It’s rather a matter of what is central and what is derived. When I read the motivating cases, I see them as motivating some kind of pragmatic encroachment. The response to skepticism is thus a derived feature from the core motivation, rather than the other way around.
The pedagogical payoff of this way of viewing the debates is this. If one thinks of traditional epistemology in terms of the competing desiderata of getting the nature of knowledge correct and accounting for the special value of knowledge at the same time, pragmatic encroachment fits naturally into tendencies that have been developing in epistemology over the last century and a half. Much of the story of fallibilist epistemology involves making knowledge less special than what one might have thought initially, and recent pragmatic encroachment theories are another example of this tendency.