Williamson and Foley

Here, in “Knowledge, Context and the Agent’s Point of View,” Timothy Williamson defends a view surprisingly akin to Foley’s view. Williamson defends the view as a response to contextualism, and begins by using the notion of an action being wrong, arguing that the agent’s context trumps the autonomy of any other context (when autonomy of other contexts is lost, the standards of the trumping context govern ascriptions in the non-autonomous context). He uses the following example:

Imagine that Clare faces a difficult practical decision: whether to resign her good job tomorrow for reasons of principle. She thinks ‘If it would be wrong for me not to resign, I will resign; if it would not be wrong for me not to resign, I will not resign. But would it be wrong for me not to resign?’ The relevant considerations are complex. Some tell in favour of the conclusion that it would be wrong for her not to resign; others tell against it. She is unsure what relative weights to assign the conflicting factors. When the considerations in favour of resigning are more salient to her, she is disposed to judge that it would be wrong for her not to resign; when the considerations against resigning are more salient to her, she is disposed to judge that it would not be wrong for her not to resign. As the moment for decision approaches, she oscillates, agonizing, between the opposed views.

Suddenly, a contextualist appears and says to Clare:

Do not worry. You are mistaken in supposing that there is a disagreement between what you think when you think ‘It would be wrong for me not to resign’ and what you think when you think ‘It would not be wrong for me not to resign’. Both thoughts are true. The sentence ‘It would be wrong for me not to resign’ expresses different propositions as uttered in different contexts. Sometimes, the considerations in favour of resigning are more salient to you; that creates a context in which ‘It would be wrong for me not to resign’ expresses a truth, to which you are disposed to assent. At other times, the considerations against resigning are more salient to you; that creates a context in which ‘It would not be wrong for me not to resign’ expresses a truth, to which you are also disposed to assent. You have no need to reject one of the two thoughts.

This contextualist resolution of Clare’s problem is liable to strike us as glib and shallow. When the moment for action comes, Clare must either resign or not resign. Given her intention expressed in the words ‘I will resign if and only if it would be wrong not to do so’, by resigning she goes only with the thought ‘It would be wrong for me not to resign’, and by not resigning she goes only with the thought ‘It would not be wrong for me not to resign’. She cannot have it both ways.

Williamson holds that the agent’s context trumps other contexts so that the autonomy of other contexts needed for the defensibility of contextualism is absent.

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.

He then goes on the argue that something similar occurs in the case of ascriptions of knowledge: the agent’s own context trumps the autonomy of other contexts, so that contextualism is indefensible. All that is required is the primacy of the agent’s context for contextualism to false, for if the agent’s context is primary in the required sense, it blocks the autonomy needed by other contexts for contextualism to be defensible.

It is precisely this primacy of the agent’s context that Foley emphasizes by claiming that the central and fundamental notion of rationality is that of egocentric rationality. Thus, whereas Williamson asserts the primacy with respect to the question of knowledge and Foley of rationality, they are, somewhat surprisingly, epistemic compatriots. Given this similarity, I would expect Foley to deny contextualism about egocentric rationality, though I don’t know whether he has ever addressed the question.


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