Epistemic contextualism is the view that the verb “know” is a context sensitive expression. As a first approximation, epistemic contextualism states that in order for us to truthfully say a person “knows” a proposition, that person must meet the standards set by our context and, critically, the standards change across contexts. The variation is thought to be theoretically important partly because it might indicate an ingredient of (the truth conditions of) “knowledge” statements beyond the traditional factors of belief, evidence, and truth.
Contextualists motivate their view based on a set of empirical claims about competent speakers’ linguistic behavior in certain situations. A famous way of illustrating the idea involves a pair of cases about a man who wants to deposit a check and is deciding whether to wait in a long line at the bank on a Friday afternoon, or come back on Saturday morning when the line would be short. But the question arises: is this bank actually open Saturday morning? The man visited this bank two Saturdays ago and it was open then, but banks do sometimes change their hours. In the “low stakes” version of the case, nothing serious hinges on whether he deposits the check before the weekend is over, and the man says, “I know that the bank is open tomorrow.” In the “high stakes” version of the case, something very serious hinges on whether he deposits the check before the weekend is over, and the man says, “I don’t know that the bank is open tomorrow.”
Contextualists claim that competent speakers will judge that the man truthfully says he “knows” in the low stakes version, and that the man truthfully says he “doesn’t know” in the high stakes version.
Do people behave as contextualists predict? Prior research on this empirical question has yielded mixed results. Taking into account methodological objections raised by contextualists,* I ran another series of studies to investigate the issue.** I found that, just as contextualists predicted, people judged that the man truthfully says he “knows” in the low stakes case, and that the man truthfully says he “doesn’t know” in the high-stakes case.
However, I also found two other things that make it very difficult to interpret this as evidence for contextualism.
On the one hand, there is the general shifting problem: switching from low to high stakes also significantly decreased belief attributions, the evaluation of the agent’s evidence, and people’s confidence that the bank was open tomorrow. Thus, the contextualist hypothesis is not needed to explain the observed pattern in knowledge judgments: it could easily be explained by changes in underlying judgments about belief, evidence, and truth. This confirms some suspicions voiced by some philosophers over the years (e.g. Kent Bach and Jennifer Nagel).
On the other hand, there is the deferral confound. Even if nothing about stakes or error possibilities is mentioned, people tend to agree that the agent speaks truthfully when he says “I know,” and they also tend to agree when he says “I don’t know.” In short, people tend to defer to another person’s self-regarding knowledge statement. (Some evidence for this might also be gleaned from earlier work by Wesley Buckwalter and Nat Hansen & Emmanuel Chemla.)*** Unfortunately, this low-level agreement bias has been obscured because contextualist test cases are multiply confounded.
To illustrate the deferral confound, consider a pair of cases I tested, which involve not a low/high manipulation but rather a yes/no manipulation:
(Yes/No) Keith and his wife Jane are driving home from work on Friday afternoon. They just received a check from a client, which Keith plans to deposit in their bank account. As they drive past the bank, they see that the lines inside are very long. Keith says, “I hate waiting in line. I’ll just come back tomorrow morning instead.” Jane asks, “Do you know that our bank is open tomorrow?” Keith answers, “It was two Saturdays ago that I went to our bank, and it was open. So, [yes, I do/no, I don’t] know that our bank is open tomorrow.”
People tended to agree with the agent in both cases. Thus manipulating stakes (low/high) is not needed to produce the basic pattern in knowledge judgments that contextualists have focused on. Moreover, a follow-up study revealed that when the deferral confound is removed, manipulating stakes does not produce the relevant pattern in knowledge judgments: instead, people tend to (meta-linguistically) attribute knowledge in both low and high stakes cases (i.e. they say that the man should say “I know” in order to speak truthfully).
Based on these findings — all of which were replicated across multiple cover stories — I conclude that the principal extant motivation for contextualism fails. Contextualists still owe us a distinguishing prediction of their view, something we would confidently expect only if contextualism were true, or which contextualism seems uniquely suited to explain. Absent that, contextualism is an idle hypothesis and we should not accept it.
Of course, it is consistent with these findings that such a prediction will be made and vindicated. That would be an interesting development! But, moving forward, hopefully the theoretical debate will not get too far out ahead of available evidence. The fact that experimental epistemology is now a firmly established and growing interdisciplinary field will likely help in this regard.
* DeRose, K. (2011). Contextualism, contrastivism, and X-Phi surveys. Philosophical Studies, 156(1), 81–110.
** Turri, J. (in press). Epistemic contextualism: an idle hypothesis. Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
*** For discussion, see Buckwalter, W. (in press). Epistemic contextualism and linguistic behavior. In Ichikawa, J. J. (Ed.), Handbook of Epistemic Contextualism. Routledge.