Let’s distinguish relativism and contextualism in the following way. Relativism introduces variability in the calculation of a truth value given a proposition, and contextualism introduces variability in the calculation of the proposition expressed.
I’ve taught contextualism regularly for the past several years, and a pattern has emerged. I introduce contextualism as providing a middle ground between Moorean optimism and skeptical pessimism. I’ve taught this both to graduate students and to upper division undergraduates. Each time I face a dilemma.
So, first I sometimes try the careful and precise method. I carefully distinguish between sentences, propositions, contexts, the theory of expression, and the theory of alethic evaluation. I tell them what a relativist says and what a contextualist says, and I insist on the distinction. I never, never, never, when doing it this way, say or allow to be said statements like “S knows that p in ordinary standards contexts,” or “S doesn’t know that p in high standards contexts”. These remarks mask the difference between relativism and contextualism, as well as violating use-mention strictures. So I insist. And the result is that no one finds contextualism very appealing.
The other way is to allow the remarks above, and talk this way myself in characterizing the view. I don’t talk initially about the difference between relativism and contextualism, but leave that until the very end. Students find the view very appealing when presented in this way, but upon questioning, it is clear that they hear it as a version of relativism. (The reason that the use/mention violation leads to a version of relativism is that a relativist, unlike a contextualist, can endorse a standard disquotation principle about truth for sentences. Well, that’s not quite right, but it’s close: if you’re a relativist, you’ll disquote with abandon, and if you’re a contextualist, you shouldn’t.) That is, they think of the truth value of the claim that S knows p as being relative to whether or not the context is a high standards context. And, so they think, relativism is cool!
I find this immensely frustrating, since I have a pretty strong aversion to relativistic views anywhere (though I try to put that to the side when presented with arguments for such views 🙂 ). So I wonder whether this experience is a common one. Have others tried to teach the view precisely, being meticulous about disallowing use-mention lapses? Or does the reception of the view really piggy-back on seeing it as a kind of relativism?