One of the primary influences that can be seen in contrastivism is the pragmatic tradition stemming from Pierce and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Dewey. One way to develop this approach is to adopt a particular account of knowledge and argue as Schaffer does that careful attention to linguistic data supports contrastivism over alternatives viewpoints, beginning from the question of the function of knowledge ascriptions and tying the resulting theory to the theory of inquiry.
Pragmatists are wont to sound more dramatic here, however, to insist that one eschew concern over the degree to which the view is encoded in present linguistic practice. One way to do this would be to drop the claim that the theory was a theory of knowledge, and instead describe it as a theory of intellectual achievement or success, but if one wanted to use the term ‘knowledge’ for describing the achievements in question, pragmatists would be happy to hear one claim to be doing so because of the fact that ‘knowledge’ has the right honorific aspect to it, making it natural to use this term even if the resulting theory is not wholly in accord with, or supported by, present linguistic usage.
If the language of knowledge is still used, Schaffer’s linguistic arguments (binding, existential instantiation, the data about noun ascriptions and interrogative ascriptions, etc.) would still be important to such a pragmatist orientation, since they help to justify the co-opting of a term of ordinary language for theoretical use.
Why would one favor such a pragmatist contrastivism?
I’m not a great fan of recent versions of pragmatism, but I am a fan of value-driven epistemology, and here a fully pragmatist contrastivism is noteworthy. On this approach, we first isolate the function of the language of epistemic appraisal or the significance of the achievements that such language describes. What makes these states valuable or important? Here the pragmatic tradition urges that this be understood in terms of inquiry, in terms of questions or perturbations in mentation, in terms of the logical space and partitioning of possible answers. If, in the process of developing such a value-driven account of cognitive achievement, we fail to offer a complete theory of the ordinary notion of knowledge (or of justification), that would be a problem according to the pragmatists only to the extent that what’s left out is important, important enough that a full understanding of cognitive success requires something beyond what this version of contrastivism provides.
There is something worth thinking about here, I think. Such a view has the virtue of avoiding the conservative tendencies of thinking that our present linguistic usage reflects what is truly important and what isn’t. In addition, it allows a fully diachronic approach to the life of the mind rather than hoping to build such an approach by cementing together the various time-slices generated by a synchronic theory of knowledge or justification, and above all, it honors the dictum that above all what is worth philosophizing about is what matters.
There may be a way to pursue such an approach without the hamfisted jettisoning of ordinary language characteristic of much pragmatist material. What I’m thinking about routes the view through the concept of understanding, which is implicitly holistic right from the outset in just the way that a suitable theory of inquiry, characterized in terms of questions and the logical space of possible answers, is holistic. One achieves progress toward complete understanding by eliminating parts of the logical space of possible answers, and the partial understandings that result along the way are properly characterizable in contrastivist language. Complete understanding, perhaps only an ideal of inquiry, is achieved when one can pin down exactly in which partition of the logical space of answers the correct answer is found. What one is achieving in the process is better characterized in terms of degrees of understanding, and not simply in terms of knowledge, even though knowledge is a normal byproduct of understanding. Equally important, if my views about the value of knowledge are correct, is that this approach will be an instance of value-driven epistemology, since even if knowledge doesn’t have the value we thought it had, such suspicions do not extend to the concept of understanding. For one thing, the concept of understanding matches our drive for comprehensive and systematically organized bodies of information in a way that the concept of knowledge doesn’t.