Contextualism and Lots of Epistemologists: Williamson, Foley, and Wedgwood

In an earlier post, I quote Williamson’s argument why ‘wrong’ is not a contextual term:

In cases of decision-making, one context is distinguished above all others: that of the agent at the moment of action. The primary question is whether the sentence ‘It would be wrong for me not to resign’ expresses a truth as uttered in the context in which the speaker is Clare and the time is that for resigning if she is to do so at all. Call that context the agent’s context, and the proposition which the relevant first person present tense sentence (such as ‘It would be wrong for me not to resign’) expresses in it the agent’s proposition. If at some point in her agonizing Clare uses the sentence to express a proposition other than the agent’s proposition, which might fail to match the agent’s proposition in truth-value, she is no longer concentrating on the relevant practical problem. Similarly, an external commentator who uses the sentence ‘It would be wrong for Clare not to resign’ to express a proposition other than the agent’s proposition is no longer concentrating on the relevant practical problem for Clare. But if the sentence expresses the agent’s proposition in all the contexts at issue, then it expresses the same proposition in all those contexts, and contextualism fails for this case.

The distinguished context, according to Williamson, is one that defines the relevant practical problem for Clare, and because of the existence of such a distinguished context, contextualism purportedly fails for ‘wrong’. I’ve also noted that this argument can be transposed into the epistemic context by delineating a distinguished epistemic problem in the way that, e.g., Foley does in defining the notion of egocentric rationality. So if Williamson’s argument is sound, and Foley’s position well-taken, we should expect contextualism to fail for the concept of egocentric rationality.

For most versions of contextualism, I think this conclusion is correct, but there is a caveat: Ralph Wedgwood’s contextualism differs from other versions in a way that makes this anti-contextualist conclusion precarious.

For Wedgwood, contextualism arises from the epistemic goal itself, the goal of getting to the truth and avoiding error. These goals compete, and according to Wedgwood, it is the practical environment of a context that determines the proper weighting of these two goals, if I remember the view correctly. Since egocentric rationality is understood relative to this epistemic goal, we should expect Wedgwood to be contextualist with respect to egocentric rationality.

So if we assume contextualism as clarified by Wedgwood, and transpose Williamson’s Clare case into epistemic key, every specific, token context for Clare will be distinguished with respect to egocentric rationality. That means that Clare’s perspective is a privileged one, robbing every other context of the autonomy needed to utterances of ‘Clare’s believing p is rational’ to express a proposition other than the distinguished proposition for Clare’s token context. Notice, however, that this point isn’t enough to undermine Wedgwood’s contextualism, for if Clare’s context changes so that the risks of error are costlier, but her quality of evidence remains the same, the new context can make ‘Clare’s believing p is rational’ false even though it was true in the earlier context. (Put this way, it’s not clear that Wedgwood’s view is a contextualist view versus a subject-sensitive invariantist view, but I’ll let the obscurity here stand as is for now…).

So now, egocentric rationality can’t be the fundamentally important concept Foley takes it to be, unless Wedgwood’s arguments for contextualism from the dual nature of the epistemic goal fail. Instead, the fundamentally important concept is captured by the language in the last paragraph of quality of evidence. If the Williamson argument is accepted, we are driven by the fundamental importance of epistemic questions to identify a non-contextual epistemic concept. It originally looked like Foley’s concept might work, but Wedgwood’s contextualism threatens that conclusion and forces us to another concept, in this case, the concept of quality of evidence.

The inference in the last paragraph raises the issue of whether Williamson’s view threatens invariantism as much as contextualism on the issue of the epistemic concepts of fundamental importance, but I’ll leave that issue for another post later.


Contextualism and Lots of Epistemologists: Williamson, Foley, and Wedgwood — 2 Comments

  1. Jon,

    This is a nice defense of Wedgwood’s contextualism from Williamson’s objection, but there might still be a worry waiting in the wings. I’ve been reading a paper of Ruth Chang’s on all things considered judgments. [Those interested might cut and paste this into their browsers: ]. The gist of her idea is that when we move from the recognition that some value supports some end, some value supports some opposing end, but all things considered the first end is the one to lump for there is some more comprehensive value that ‘all things considered’ is a placeholder for. The initial considerations she claims are just parts of this more comprehensive value that determines how the parts should relate to one another and how they support the ATC judgment (she offers as examples the more comprehensive value in virtue of which we can resolve conflicts between maximin and utility or perhaps between tastiness and health). The suggestion, I take it, is that if there really weren’t this more comprehensive value, there wouldn’t be anything supporting the ATC judgment in any particular case or that governed resolving our conflicting tendencies in one way rather than another. From a certain perspective, it would for all the world appear as if there really were two ultimate epistemic goals but this masks the underlying nature of a unified epistemic goal we may currently lack the resources to properly articulate.

    I guess the interesting questions would be whether there is any argument that there couldn’t be some further goal in virtue of which we’d try to strike the proper balance between these twin-goals or some argument that without ‘positing’ some such further goal, particular ATC judgments that believing or suspending judgment is proper come out as true.

  2. Clayton, that’s a good point, though I don’t think the ATC judgment needs to rest on some third value independent of the other two. Think of cases where the first value outweighs or defeats the second value, even though the two conflict.

    So I take your worry to be one about accounts of the epistemic goal in terms of getting to the truth and avoiding error, and whatever resolution of the conflict is suggested, such a resolution is a placeholder for some other epistemic value (though perhaps just one of the two in question, even if that’s hard to see how it would work for these particular values). If that’s correct, that’s probably another reason to prefer Chisholm’s third edition formulation (amended as I suggested) over the second edition formulation.

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