Contextualism, Invariantism, and Linguistic Intuitions

My grad seminar this semester is on pragmatic encroachment–syllabus here, for those interested in what we are reading: Pragmatic Encroachment Seminar. Everything we are doing is stuff that gives me a reason to get up in the morning to do more epistemology, and I love getting to teach that kind of material!

This week we did chapters from Jason Stanley’s book Knowledge and Practical Interests, which is wonderful stuff! Got clear on the form of the view, from the programmatic proposal on page 89, where the idea is that the kind of invariantism Jason wants is one that claims four conditions necessary for knowledge and jointly sufficient (though I whine about the first condition, that knowledge of p requires that ~p is not a serious epistemic possibility, noting that any account which builds an account of epistemic possibility on top of the usual dual rule will find this condition introducing a hopeless circularity, as well as whining about the fact that there’s nothing here to address the Gettier problem).

And then we come to the arguments about costs and benefits of such a view, compared with contextualism, and indirectly with other views. The arguments concern a standard bank case, with Hannah the agent considering whether to go to the bank. Jason rightly notes the costs of his version of invariantism (noting that when the stakes shift higher between Thursday and Friday, his view might have to say that Hannah knew on Thursday that the bank is open on Saturdays, but didn’t know this on Friday). Jason tries to disarm this admittedly unintuitive result by showing that other views have other counterintuitive results. Especially, he wants to show that some standard versions of classical invariantism, which deny pragmatic encroachment, have unintuitive consequences.

The one I’ll remark on here is the one about what Jason reports reliabilists must say about fake barn country.

Here’s what Jason says about reliabilism:

Reliabilism captures this intuition [that in fake barn country one doesn’t know that the the object one is observing is a barn], because, in Ginet’s fake barn country, perception is not a reliable method. Nevertheless, we cannot say, of a person in fake barn country who is looking at a genuine barn:

“Poor Bill. He doesn’t know that is a barn. But if there were fewer fake barns around then he would know that is a barn.”

Several things to say here, but I’ll do some border skirmishing before getting to the main battle. First, the idea of perception being unreliable in fake barn country is false and insensitive to the literature. What’s unreliable is, at most, perception-of-barns-in-fake-barn-country. And the relevance of this depends on which version of reliabilism one is talking about. Certainly no plausible version would hold that all perceptual beliefs are undermined with respect to knowledge by the presence of fake barns, and some reliabilists think it doesn’t undermine knowledge about barns either (see, e.g., Lycan and Sosa–except, of course, that only one of these is a reliabilist, on which point see the next paragraph…).

Second, if there is a problem here, it is a problem for any approach to the entire Gettier problem, not one for reliabilism alone. While it is true that reliabilism can be a theory about what it takes to turn true belief into knowledge, most reliabilists are willing to admit that their view requires a Gettier condition in addition to a reliability condition. So, this isn’t really about reliabilism per se. Instead it’s about what an adequate response to the Gettier problem will look like, and the quote about poor Bill applies to any (responsible(!)) view equally: no false lemma views, defeasibility views, modal views involving safety and sensitivity, etc.

But more important, why think the quote is troubling? Well, it is troubling, since it is obviously false. But no theory of knowledge in the post-Gettier situation needs to endorse it. In the Ginet case, the Wisconsinites have replaced nearly all barns with fake barns, and so it is false that if there were fewer fake barns, Bill would know. No, he wouldn’t: there doesn’t have to be even a preponderance of fakes to undermine the knowledge claim. In fact, it won’t take a very large percentage at all to cause problems here, even though the case was originally constructed in an exaggerated way because all that was needed at the time is to show that no inference through some false claim was needed for a Gettier-like situation to arise.

What is true is that it there were zero or nearly no fake barns, he would know. What the threshold is here–how many fake barns can leave knowledge intact–is vague and need not concern us. The point is that a bit fewer fake barns doesn’t help: you have to eliminate nearly all of them.

For this to be a cost to any theory, it would have to be intuitively false. But it isn’t. As I read it, it is an obvious truth. So I don’t see what the intuitive cost is in fake barn cases for standard invariantist views.

That is not to say, of course, that there aren’t other costs, such as having to explain away any purported data about what people ordinarily say about bank, train, and plane cases–the cases used to motivate both contextualism and the sorts of invariantisms that embrace pragmatic encroachment. If intuitive costs are being measured, that is probably a better place to focus on than with Gettier cases.


Contextualism, Invariantism, and Linguistic Intuitions — 3 Comments

  1. Hi Jon,

    Interesting. I think that the quote is false because of the first part: “He doesn’t know that is a barn.”

    In any case, I don’t have my copy of Jason’s book at hand, but did he perhaps have in mind a version of the case where some unlucky county would have the barns replaced, and it was unlikely that this would be the unlucky county? Given such a setup, the conditional “if there were fewer fakes around, then he would know” is arguably true because the conditional “if there were fewer fakes around, then there would be no fakes around” would also be true.

    This reading would bring Jason’s point in line with your claim, “What is true is that if there were zero or nearly no fake barns, he would know.”

  2. Dear Jon,

    Thanks for the comments. Yes of course you are right about “perception in general” – it never for a moment occurred to me that this is the natural reading of my sentence, though you are right – it is. This is what George Boolos called a “think-o”.

    The point of this argument was to suggest that anytime a theory suggests that knowledge is dependent upon a factor that is surprising to the non-epistemologist, the relevant counterfactuals sound funny to them. Insofar as epistemologists are in an analogous situation vis a vis stakes as the non-epistemologist is to reliability, they will hear the relevant stakes-counterfactuals as odd.

    So the claim is that even a counterfactual like “Poor John, he doesn’t know that is a barn, but if there had been no fake barns around, then he would know that is a barn (since it is)” sound odd to the non-epistemologist. My point is that, even if true, this doesn’t refute reliabilism. Similarly, the oddity of the analogous counterfactual does not refute interest-relativism i.e. pragmatic encroachment. The oddity of the reliabilism counterfactual just shows that the fact that knowledge depends upon reliable mechanisms is a feature that the knowledge relation does not bear on its surface. Mutatis mutandis for interests or stakes.

    For what it’s worth, I’d haphazardly speculate that “Poor John, he doesn’t know that’s a Ford, since he inferred that is from something false, but if he had inferred it from something true, he would know it” sounds less weird to the non-epistemologists. Of course all of these claims are speculations, and it would very tiring to do X-phi surveys and eliminate all the confounds.

    The basic point is that anytime somebody claims that the knowledge relation involves a factor that hasn’t yet been recognized in the literature, the relevant counterfactuals will sound odd. If they didn’t seem odd, it would be a mystery why the factors hadn’t yet been recognized. Insofar as reliability is a genuinely novel factor, I’m hypothesizing the relevant counterfactuals would seem odd to the non-epistemologist, and would have seemed odd to other epistemologists at the time (or else why hadn’t somebody noticed the factor by then?). So don’t count the counterfactuals against me, since the thesis that knowledge involves stakes also has to do with essential but non-obvious properties of the knowledge relation.

    I guess I should have made this point less dependent upon intuition mongering. Pragmatic encroachment is supposed to follow from the knowledge-action principles. One sees reflections of the knowledge action principles in the way we used knowledge to criticize action. Pragmatic encroachment also explains a lot of the bank/airport type intuitions in the literature – so like reliabilism, there are straightforward intuitions that support it. But intuitions are just evidential claims – the knowledge-action principles rather follow from claims about the value of knowledge. So some hard philosophy gets you to pragmatic encroachment. It’s no surprise it’s not an obvious feature of the knowledge relation, so it’s no surprise the counterfactuals sound odd. I was assuming that the situation was pretty similar with the surprising factor of reliability.

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