Contextualism and Invariantism

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.


Contextualism and Invariantism — 8 Comments

  1. Sorry to be a bit off-topic, but I can’t help but chime in with a real-world pragmatic encroachment example that strikes me as interesting pedagogically:
    I think it’s very plausible to suggest that various governors, senators, etc. now know that Hillary Clinton will not be the Democratic nominee. (I think I know that as well.) These people have been calling for her to end the race. Yet it’s also plausible that Hillary doesn’t *know* she’s going to lose, and so it makes sense to her for her to stay in…..

  2. Hi Mike, I guess I think otherwise. Insofar as we can know such things, I think she’s in the same position to know that we are in, but there are a couple of complications. First, she has much more reason for self-deception than the rest of us, so she may not actually believe that she will lose. Second, even if she does know, she may believe that the case for losing isn’t conclusive, and that could make staying in the race rational. This needs defense of course, but the idea is that rationality is a matter of total perspective, and total perspective changes when one engages in reflective ascent. I hear there will be a book defending such an idea soon…!

  3. John,
    A few minor points. First, while a lot of the Stanley and Hawthorne liturature spends considerable time defending the invariantist part of sensitive invariantism, they seem to spend less attention to the “sensitive invariantist” thesis as a whole. That is to say, defending the position against evidentialism. Fantl and Mcgrath seem to present the thesis against evidentialism, not necessarily devoting a lot of their attention to defending invariantism. That is to say, most of the Fantl and Mcgrath literature that i’ve read spends most of the time undermining the idea that what counts for having sufficient evidence is merely a matter of having the appropriate amount and type of truth conducive evidence. I kind of like to think of pragmatic encroachers as being more dedicated to the platonic notion of knowing the good and doing it, as opposed to the traditional understanding that knowledge needs to be tied down by justification so it does not fly away. So, it would seem that there is a type of contextualism going on here, but it isn’t a semantic contextualism where knowledge attributions differ in semantic content as the standards are raised and lowered, rather what counts for sufficient knowledge comes and goes depending on the practical interests and stakes of the subject.

    Finally, is it really the case that what is known doesn’t matter for the pragmatic encroacher? I would think that pragmatic encroachers think knowledge is very important, because it gives one sufficient reason to act. Thus, they would advise most epistemic purists not just to know, but act on that knowledge. I think they might suggest that perhaps our epistemic picture must include practical interests and stakes; perhaps its not as pretty as most epistemologists would like to think. And is this not most consistent with our doxastic lives and practices?

    P.S. I wonder what the consequences contextualism and pragmatic encroachment has on debates concerning the epistemology in philosophy of religion; is God in a high stakes context and thus is any knowledge attributions to God from a low standards context false? Religious beliefs are often thought of as high stakes beliefs; so, does what count as sufficient evidence differ for the religious believer and atheist?

  4. Raymond, it is true that some pragmatic encroachment theorists say that knowledge is a sufficient basis for action. Nothing I said was incompatible with that, though. Presumably, Pyrrhonians would say the same thing. The paralysis concern arises because of the paucity of the basis. That’s a concern about the need for knowledge, not one about the sufficiency of it for action. Moreover, if knowledge is both necessary and sufficient as a basis for action, pragmatic encroachment will have to be constrained in such a way that it doesn’t tend to disappear as the stakes go up.

    It is important to note that I’m not citing this as a criticism of pragmatic encroachment: I too maintain that it isn’t what you know that counts. But, depending on exactly how the theory goes, the particular dampening of the significance of knowledge might be troubling.

  5. Jon, I think I can understand what you mean, so lets see if I can articulate it here:

    1. Knowledge could be sufficient for action, but not necessary for action, otherwise knowledge attributions disappear as the stakes go up.
    2. There is a dampening of the significance of knowledge if pragmatic encroachment is true.
    3. It is unclear how pragmatic encroachment theorists address skepticism.

    With respect to 1, is it not true that if knowledge is sufficient for action, knowledge attributions disappear as the stakes go up, irregardless of whether it’s necessary for knowledge? Let me articulate.

    4. Suppose S knows that p.
    5. S also understands that if p is true, then it is best to do A.
    6. Thus S knows that it is best to do A.
    7. Suppose also that S knows that If S knows that it is best to do A, then S should do A.
    8. Thus S should do A.

    7 just assumes that knowledge is sufficient for action. But raise the stakes so 8 seems risky for S, thus 8 seems false: S shouldn’t do A, because it’s too risky. But if that’s the case then 4 and 6 is also false (assuming closure is true).

    With respect to point 2, I think the issue I’m having is that pragmatic encroachers tend to call into question what exactly knowledge is; sufficient evidence, for pragmatic encroachment theorists, depends partially on practical interests and stakes. So, as I undestand it the significance of knowledge for pragmatic encroachers is just different from the epistemic purists, not necessarily dampened.

    With respect to 3, I think you’re right on target. I don’t think there is any straight forward way that pragmatic encroachment theorists can address skeptical arguments; but there might be some novel ways that they can advocate some form of local skepticism. For example some game show scenarios. Suppose I’m on who wants to be a millionaire, and in normal stakes situations I take myself to know the answer to the question. It seems natural for me to say something like “hmmm I think the answer is _____ but I don’t know, it’s just to risky, I better use my lifeline”. But suppose I don’t think it’s risky, I’m already a billionaire, I could naturally say “Well I know it’s a lot of money, but I already have a lot of money, so it’s not that risky. I know the answer is ________, so that’s my final answer”. Your point kind of builds on 2, in the sense that you seem to think that in the high stakes situations, the significance of knowledge is somewhat dampened and practical interests and stakes take priority. But my worry is that you are just assuming pragmatic encroachment is false. It seems to me, that pragmatic encroachment theorists would have a similar worry that epistemic purists, such as myself and perhaps you, ignore practical interests in knowledge attributions; that is to say when talking about knowledge we ignore the stakes and practical interests of the epistemic agent and they might find this troubling. In other words, stakes and practical interests may add to the significance of knowledge, thus the significance of knowledge is not dampened if pragmatic encroachment is true, rather it changes the significance of knowledge from something that you understand, successfully cognize, or believe to be true to something that you can also act upon.

    So, the pragmatic encroachment theorist might have a similar worry about epistemic purists, that the significance of knowledge is somehow dampened if the practical interests and stakes are ignored.

    I understand that these points weren’t meant to object, and I’m not trying to be antagonistic here. I just find it fascinating to think and dialogue about. Especially with such a brilliant epistemologist as yourself, Jon.

  6. Raymond, out of your 1, 2, and 3, I think only 2 is one I endorsed, and the dampening depends on the particular kind of pragmatic encroachment that is proposed. But there are too many varieties of pragmatic encroachment to say such more than this, and in particular, not all make the concept of evidence play any role at all in the story of knowledge. The point I was stressing was only the tendency for knowledge (or the truth of knowledge attributions) to go away as stakes go up. When such a result is fully general, then something other than knowledge (or the truth of knowledge attributions, whether attributor-based or subject-based) is going to be needed to answer the questions of what to do and what to believe. I suspect that this is another way in which Williamson’s “knowledge-first” approach is quite different from a significant tendency in recent epistemology.

  7. Dear Jon,

    Lottery cases naturally motivate a theory on which the salience of a question makes a difference. Bank cases motivate a theory on which the practical stakes make a difference. Hawthorne’s book is primarily about lottery cases. Stanley’s book is primarily about bank cases. Contextualists would like both phenomena to support their view. They then claim that BIV skepticism is to be treated in the same way as lottery cases. A contextualist treatment of bank cases makes more plausible a contextualist treatment of lottery cases, which makes more plausible a contextualist treatment of BIV skepticism.

    I don’t see your point about IRI (to pick one theory) making knowledge less important. A central point of Stanley’s book is that IRI is necessary to defend the connection between knowledge and action. He thinks that making knowledge important requires IRI. The data is: Hannah knows that p in low-stakes, and doesn’t know in high-stakes. Also: she should act on p in low-stakes, and should not act on p in high-stakes. The stakes affect whether you should act on p; so if that’s a function of whether you know that p, then the stakes affect whether you know that p. That is prima facie support for Stanley’s IRI from a knowledge-action principle. (There are some cases that make trouble for this claim, but they have not been brought up.) Hawthorne and Stanley are knowledge-firsters.

    You suggest that if IRI is true, then nobody knows anything important to them. I don’t see it. Just because it would be easier for them to know if the stakes were lower, doesn’t mean that they don’t meet the higher standard. Why can’t Stanley say that the standards for knowledge go up exactly to the degree intuition says they go up?


  8. Alex, the point of the post isn’t to saddle IRI or any other particular theory with the conclusion that knowledge isn’t important. It’s to expose a concern about the theories. Some versions of the theories in question will embrace the concern as part of the view; others will bring additional resources to bear to eliminate or minimize the concern. One such resource is the Williamsonian idea that Hawthorne and Stanley are fans of. That would be to bring additional resources to block the concern, and nothing in the post claimed that no response can be made to the concern, just as nothing in the post claims that there is no adequate Pyrrhonian response to the paralysis objection. Readers of the blog will know that I’m not a fan of the knowledge first approach, nor of the connection between knowledge and how one should act, but it wasn’t my intention to provide an argument that pragmatic encroachers have to view knowledge as unimportant. The idea was to point out the concern, not to make it stick.

    To see the concern, you first have to bracket the additional resources a theorist might use to block the concern. Jason is fond of saying that the heart of the interest-relativity of his view is that, the more you care about an issue the less you know; if correct (and it’s a slightly misleading characterization, as Jason knows), then, without additional theoretic resources, something like the attitude Pyrrhonians took toward knowledge is appropriate here as well: knowledge isn’t quite as important as many have thought, since you have to go on with your life in so many cases without it.

    That leaves open appeal to additional resources to block the concern about the importance of knowledge. As you note, if the knowledge-action connection could be sustained, the threat is removed: knowledge will be important because of its connection to rational action. An alternative additional resource, one that Keith argues for, is the knowledge norm of assertion. That, too, would remove the concern. The point to note, though, is the need for additional resources: if you know less the more pragmatic features encroach, then it looks as if you’ll want to focus on other epistemic conditions than whether you know for purposes of conducting your life, both intellectually and practically. One can embrace the consequence, or some version of it, as some of us are inclined to do; or one can bring additional theoretical resources to bear to avoid the apparent consequence.

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