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