New empirical studies on epistemic contextualism

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. Continue reading

What philosophers think might not be what you think they think

Professional philosophers often appeal to patterns in ordinary thought and talk — “commonsense” — in order to support theories or assumptions. In recent years, the emerging interdisciplinary field of experimental epistemology has revealed many instances where commonsense epistemology has been seriously mischaracterized. But even if professional philosophers misidentify what the folk think about knowledge, certainly they know what they themselves think about knowledge. Right?


In a fascinating paper forthcoming in Philosophical Studies, a pair of researchers tested ordinary people and professional philosophers (“experts”) on a range of cases.* A principal finding concerns knowledge attributions in cases where an agent sees an object that is surrounded by visually indistinguishable fakes. Continue reading

Fundraising effort to support fired faculty at Mount St. Mary’s

As I discussed earlier, two faculty members at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland were fired earlier this week for “disloyalty” to the institution. For the latest on this story, use the Google.

Nearly 8,000 academics have signed a statement of protest calling for the faculty to be reinstated. What’s needed now are contributions to a fundraising effort to help cover their legal fees. To contribute please visit

As Brian Leiter observes, part of why this effort is so important is that a strong showing here could scare the university into backing down on their own. It will also send a message to administrators elsewhere that this sort of thing will not be allowed to stand.

Note also that excess contributions will be donated to Bottom Line, Inc. (, a charity devoted to helping disadvantaged college students get in to college, graduate, and go far in life.

Statement of Protest Regarding Faculty Firings at Mount St. Mary’s University

I taught for several years at Mount St. Mary’s University, where Thane Naberhaus, a (tenured) professor of philosophy, was abruptly fired yesterday afternoon for his role in opposing a plan to dismiss at-risk freshmen in their first semester of college.

For more on the story, you can visit Daily Nous.

To sign a statement of protest from members of the academic community, please visit

The proto-reliabilist hypothesis

In contemporary Anglo-American epistemology, it is very widely assumed that knowledge must be reliably produced. On this view, knowledge must be produced by abilities (processes, faculties, powers, etc.) that “will or would yield mostly true beliefs,” as William Alston put it. Call this consensus view “knowledge reliabilism.”

One thing I’ve always been surprised by is how little explicit, direct argumentation there is for knowledge reliabilism in the literature. An old paper by Goldman contains a weak explanatory argument, which gets cited sometimes. Aside from that, the main consideration offered in support of knowledge reliabilism is that it’s just commonsense. For instance, Edward Craig claims that reliabilism “matches our everyday practice with the concept of knowledge as actually found,” that it is “a good fit to the intuitive extension of ‘know’.” And Ernest Sosa claims that reliabilism is the theoretical “correlate” of “commonsense” epistemology. Call this “the proto-reliabilist hypothesis” about folk epistemology.

The proto-reliabilist hypothesis makes at least a couple straightforward predictions. First, people will tend to deny knowledge in cases of unreliably formed belief. Second, clear and explicit differences in reliability should produce large differences in people’s willingness to attribute knowledge. These predictions can be tested with some very simple experiments. Below I briefly describe one I ran. Continue reading

7th Annual Northwestern/Notre Dame (NU/ND) Graduate Epistemology Conference: Evanston, IL, April 22-23


7th Annual Northwestern/Notre Dame (NU/ND) Graduate Epistemology Conference

April 22-23, 2016
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Keynote Speaker: Selim Berker (Harvard)

Submissions deadline: February 1

Submission guidelines: We welcome submissions in the field of epistemology, broadly construed. Papers may be on any topic in epistemology, and we especially encourage
the submission of papers in sub-fields or on topics that have received less attention in mainstream epistemology in the past 60 years. Examples of such sub-fields and topics are: feminist epistemology, epistemology of race and gender, social epistemology, and so-called normative epistemology. Papers should be no more than 4000 words (approx. 13 pages), excluding notes. Papers should be prepared for blind review: include detachable cover page with paper’s title, abstract, author’s name, mailing address, email, phone number, school affiliation, and word count; please omit any self-identifying remarks within the body of the paper. Papers should be emailed as an attached PDF to the conference organizers at

Horowitz Wins Sanders Prize

Just saw this on Facebook. Fantastic news, and well-deserved congratulations to Sophie!

Congratulations to Sophie Horowitz, Assistant Professor at Rice University, for winning the 2015 Sanders Prize in Epistemology. Sophie’s paper, “Accuracy and Educated Guesses,” will be published in Oxford Studies in Epistemology.

Credences, unlike full beliefs, can’t be true or false. So what makes credences more or less accurate? I offer a new answer to this question: credences are accurate insofar as they license true educated guesses, and less accurate insofar as they license false educated guesses. I argue that this account can be used to justify certain coherence constraints on rational credence, and has other advantages over rival accounts of accuracy.

CFP: 6th Annual Edinburgh Graduate Epistemology Conference

Call For Papers

Sixth Annual Edinburgh Graduate Epistemology Conference

The 6th Annual Edinburgh Graduate Epistemology Conference will take place 6th-7th June 2016 at the University of Edinburgh. This year’s keynote speakers will be Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins (British Columbia) and Alan Millar (Stirling). All graduate presentations will have respondents from faculty members at Edinburgh or a neighbouring university.

We invite graduate students to submit essays within any area of epistemology (broadly construed). Essays should be under 4000 words, and should be anonymised for blind review.

We would really like the conference to be representative of the graduate community and so we strongly encourage submissions from anyone working on epistemology who is a member of an under-represented group.

We will be happy to help arrange free childcare for any attendees who would find it helpful. Please feel free to get in touch to discuss this, or any accessibility requirements you may have.

The deadline for submissions is 16th February, 2016, 00:00 GMT. For more information, including details of how to submit, please visit our conference page:

This conference is generously sponsored by the Eidyn Research Centre, the University of Edinburgh, and is supported by the Edinburgh Women in Philosophy Group.

The Dart Board Case

From Sophie Horowitz’s paper “Epistemic Akrasia,” which we are talking about in our epistemology reading group today. Here’s the case:

“You have a large, blank dartboard. When you throw a dart at the board, it
can only land at grid points, which are spaced one inch apart along the horizontal and vertical axes. … Although you are pretty good at picking out where the dart has landed, you are rationally highly confident that your discrimination is not perfect: in particular, you are confident that when you judge where the dart has landed, you might mistake its position for one of the points an inch away (i.e. directly above, below, to the left, or to the right). You are also confident that, wherever the dart lands, you will know that it has not landed at any point farther away than one of those four. You throw a dart, and it lands on a point somewhere close to the middle of the board.” (p. 19)

So, it sounds to me as if this is the situation: it kinda looks like it hit in the center, but you can’t be sure. Horowitz then reports Williamson’s assessment of the case (we suppose the grid for the board is 1-5 along both axes (so it kinda looks like it landed at <3,3>)):

“So let’s suppose that when the dart lands at <3,3>, you should be highly confident in the proposition that it landed at either <3,2>, <2,3>, <3,3>, <4,3>, or <3,4>–so, you can rationally rule out every point except for those five. … Williamson agrees with this verdict, and supposes further that your credence should be equally distributed over <3,2>, <2,3>, <3,3>, <4,3>, and <3,4>. So, for each of those five points, you should have .2 credence that the dart landed at that point.” (p. 20)

This strikes me as exactly wrong. As I read the case, my guess as to where the dart landed is that it landed at <3,3>, but I can’t be sure. I might easily mistake its position for an adjacent one. But then I’m not egalitarian with respect to the 5 possible positions. I don’t make guesses without some evidential substance to support them as opposed to alternative hypotheses, so when I guess that it landed at <3,3>, that means that the look in question supports a greater degree of confidence in that hypothesis than the others. It may also mean that my probability for that hypothesis is greater than .5. In any case, I’m more confident in one of them than in the others, and this confidence is based on the indefinite look in question (and, we may suppose, rationally so).

Of course, we can change the case so that my powers of discrimination are indeterminate between the five regions, but then I also won’t be able to use my powers of discrimination to rule out areas out side of the five in question, since I’m no more confident that the dart landed in the center of the 5-region territory than at the edge.

In short, I don’t see how the case is supposed to get the Williamsonian indifference between the 5 regions, compatible with one’s perception putting one in a position to rule out all other regions on the board.