Williamson, Contextualism, and Value-Driven Epistemology

In an earlier post, I quoted the following passage in which Williamson defends anti-contextualism about the concept of what is right or wrong:

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.

This passage employs the concept of what is distinguished, which context robs others of the autonomy needed for contextualism to be true about right and wrong. Williamson characterizes this distinguished context in various ways here: it is the “primary question”, it is the context that delineates the “relevant practical problem”. It is easy to gloss these three different characterizations in value terms: what really matters, given the particular situation Claire finds herself in, is which agent proposition is true; nothing else could be important enough to override the importance of this question for Claire, and anyone else should recognize this fact. So contextualism about the terms of this problem–e.g., the concepts of right and wrong–is false.

Notice what happens in epistemology if we accept such an argument. It doesn’t follow that contextualism about knowledge is false, but something very interesting does follow. Underneath every version of contextualism should be something akin to the question Claire faces. There will be some distinguished epistemic problem which defines the primary epistemic question for the person involved, and this issue will make the agent’s context distinguished in such a way that the agent’s context robs other contexts of the autonomy needed for contextualism to be true about this particular epistemic concept. Call this concept the noncontextualist concept (I’m being sloppy metaphysically here, since the issue isn’t really one about concepts at all; but it’s easiest to talk this way, so I’ll leave it for now).

Williamson’s view is that the noncontextualist concept is knowledge itself, fitting with his overall project of making knowledge itself the focus of his theorizing, both in epistemology and in the theory of action and mind, more generally. Thus, he undertakes the burden of showing that knowledge is analogous to right and wrong in the Claire example. What’s interesting from my own point of view, however, is the more general point that contextualism is not a deep epistemological theory, if Williamson’s argument is correct. It is not deep because any concept of which it is true is not the concept that really matters from an agent’s epistemic point of view. Once we identify what really matters epistemically, Williamson’s argument implies that contextualism won’t be adequate regarding it, and that makes Williamson’s argument quite important.

The only alternative for the contextualist here is to make it into an onion theory, on which no matter how many layers you remove, you find more contextualism at the next layer. The implication of Williamson’s argument is that on such an onion theory, nothing really matters epistemically. It’s the epistemological equivalent of a person with no soul, who is nothing but one fa&#231ade layered on top of another.

So it is no surprise that Williamson won’t embrace contextualism about knowledge: knowledge, for him, is the distinguished epistemic concept. For others, some other property will be distinguished in this way: for Cohen, for example, it is something like justification. What contextualists ought always to tell us to complete their epistemic theory is where the layers end: what is the reallly important epistemic stuff beneath the outer layers. That is what value-driven epistemology demands.


Comments

Williamson, Contextualism, and Value-Driven Epistemology — 14 Comments

  1. Jon,

    This is an interesting post. The point Williamson is making doesn’t seem all that different from one Judith Thomson makes in her Goodness and Advice where she rails against the suggestion that when we use ‘ought’ in seeking or offering advice ‘ought’ can be multiply ambiguous (e.g., if I am trying to determine whether to give money to Oxfam, your saying that you ought to in the moral sense but ought not to in the self-interested sense doesn’t help me resolve the practical question).

    It would seem that if her argument worked, and perhaps if Williamson’s point were accepted, this would cause some difficulty for those who like to distinguish between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ oughts as well. In a number of places Thomson appeals to observations about what sort of advice is appropriate to give to reject the assumption that when we are wondering about whether we ought to do, we are trying to determine what ‘subjectively’ we ought to do. The distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ epistemic oughts seems like a natural one for epistemologists to try to draw (I suppose it is just as natural for ethicists to draw it come to think of it), but I was wondering what you’d say about the significance of Williamson’s point to this distinction.

    Some people I’ve asked say if p is false you oughtn’t believe it. Others say if your evidence supports p you ought to believe it. They tend to say such things as if they are obvious so naturally I wonder if they know about each other. No one I’ve talked to thinks that it is impossible for your evidence to be misleading and no one I’ve talked to thinks you ought to believe p and ~p. Do you have a view about this? I do, but the only people who find it plausible don’t do epistemology.

  2. Clayton, thanks for the Thompson reference, I haven’t seen it yet. I think you’re right that there’s a connection here, even though ambiguity is a different issue than the one raised by contextualism. I don’t see how it threatens the view that ambiguity is present, though; as far as I can tell, the only thing it can imply is that there is a privileged sense of ‘ought’ that is relevant to the agent’s practical decision.

    I think what you’re noticing about what people are willing to say you oughtn’t believe shows what those people think is valuable from a cognitive point of view. Since true belief is valuable, you should believe the truth; since justified belief is valuable, you should believe what your evidence supports. If you think the notion of obligation here is univocal, you have a potential conflict if the claim is false but justified. And, of course, there’s Williamson’s view that you ought to believe a claim iff you know it to be true (a point discussed here earlier on whether knowledge is the norm of belief, from which I took away the conclusion that the idea is not especially promising).

    The resolution of the potential conflict occurs by arguing for one of these views as isolating a distinguished question, the one involved in resolving for oneself what to believe, if Williamson’s argument is accepted. (Though I’d reserve the option of rejecting all of the talk of doxastic obligation here, talking instead in evaluative terms about what to believe instead.)

  3. Jon,

    I think that you are right about people’s different reactions to different proposals about what our epistemic oughts are is due to different views about what is valuable from the epistemic point of view. I’d hasten to add that it is partially due to different views about how culpability and permissibility are related.

    I was hoping to ask a few follow up questions.

    First, are you inclined to say that epistemic justification is intrinsically valuable? I guess that I’d be inclined to say that it is (it seems valuable after all and it doesn’t seem to be of mere instrumental value since it is hard to imagine how it could possibly be of disvalue from the epistemic point of view and this would be hard to explain on a view where justification isn’t valuable for its own sake). One way of evaluating candidate theories of justification is in terms of their ability to account for this. It would seem that reliabilism might do poorly on this score (here I have in mind points you raise in your _Value of Knowledge_) but a modified version of Williamson’s view such as the one Sutton defends according to which justified belief is knowledge does much better (as would a view on which justified belief is just true belief). I suppose a more internalist view on which justified belief is a matter of epistemic worth or credit might also account for this.

    Second, I think you were quite right that at best the point I attribute to Thomson is that there is a privileged sense of ‘ought’ involved in practical matters. But admitting this, it would be hard to see how someone could justify the existence of a plurality of epistemic obligations. Suppose there was an obligation to believe the true and refrain from believing the false. Wouldn’t it be odd to say that there is in addition an obligation to follow your evidence but only if in so doing you wouldn’t violate your fundamental epistemic obligations?

    The suggestion that resolving this sort of issue requires resolving issues about epistemic value is an attractive one but I’d hasten to add that different epistemic values might call out for different sorts of responses. I can imagine someone saying that epistemically good conduct is valuable and that meeting your epistemic ends is valuable. In deciding what to believe, only one of these values should figure in your deliberation. In deciding what sort of reactions are appropriate to someone’s believing something, only one of these values grounds reactive judgments (she’s justified, he’s irrational, etc.).

  4. Clayton, on your first question I think justification is valuable, but not intrinsically. The contrast with intrinsic value is not instrumental value, but rather extrinsic value (I explain the relevance of this distinction in the third chapter of The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding) and I think the value of justification is extrinsically related to the value of truth (though not in the same way that reliabilism does). On the second question, I don’t see the oddity here: the obligations in question would be prima facie, and a good theory would tell us when certain prima facie obligations outweigh other ones.

    The third issue is the most troubling, I think. Suppose you agree with Williamson that there is a privileged epistemic assessment established by the cognizer’s context. If so, contextualism will fail for this type of assessment. Then we ask whether other sorts of criticism or assessment can be made, using other concepts, and the answer is “of course”. But with a caveat: none of these criticisms or assessments can inform us at all about what the person should believe or would be best to believe, since that question is answered by the privileged epistemic assessment in question.

  5. Jon,

    Sorry, I was being sloppy in my use of ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ so your point is well taken.

    I know you are somewhat sceptical of the idea of epistemic ought or duty, but do you really think that there could be a plausible deontic approach to justification that recognized a notion of p.f. epistemic obligations?

    My worry is that it seems plausible to think that epistemically you ought to refrain from believing what is false and that epistemically you ought to believe what is best supported by your evidence. However, you can’t treat both of these as p.f. duties that can be weighed against one another to determine what your final duty is in a particular case. This wouldn’t work for precisely the reason Ross couldn’t say that to accomodate the intuition that you ought to do what fidelity requires and you ought to do what is right, doing what is right and doing what fidelity requires are p.f. duties that can be weighed against one another. Doing what is right is just doing what your final duty is and when it comes into conflict with doing what fidelity would require, it would be a mistake to think that the demands of fidelity should weigh against doing what is right in deliberation. Ross had a theory of p.f. duty because he was sceptical of the idea that we could specify a final end independent of this list of duties. I don’t think we should be sceptical of specifying such an end in epistemology. There might be some other way of thinking of p.f. duties than thinking of them on the model Ross provides, but I can’t think of one offhand.

    A theory of p.f. duties would seem to have to be one where the duties are duties captured by various epistemic principles understood as rules that state the perceptual, memorial, testimonial (etc.) conditions under which a certain kind of cognitive response is appropriate. If we identify final duty with a duty that is somehow determined by our p.f. duty to, say, believe p when it perceptually seems to you as if p, then this view will simply have to deny that ‘you ought to believe p only if p’ correctly captures either prima facie or ultimate duty.

    You are right that the sort of view I was floating has the troubling consequence that a certain kind of criticism or assessment doesn’t inform us at all about what the person should believe or would be best to believe. I’ve come to think of this as an advantage. I’m starting to come around to the idea that just as an act utilitarian should say that there isn’t really any justification for performing an action that isn’t optimific (its looking for all the world like it is optimific is not a justification) we should say something similar about epistemic justification. If you epistemic obligation is to believe only if C (C could be truth, knowledge, or perhaps something else), even if your evidence suggests that by believing p your belief meets C, if it doesn’t you oughtn’t believe it. If you oughtn’t believe it, there is no justification for believing it. If in believing p your belief meets C, if you were sloppy, reckless, or failing to heed evidence, your belief satisfies the relevant obligations (okay, obviously this would be incoherent on some conceptions of what C is). That your belief meets C is a really good justification for it. Actions are like that, I think. Why not belief?

  6. Clayton, I don’t think I understand the ross argument here. Are you assuming that the proper analogue of what is right all things considered in the domain of action is what is true in the realm of belief? I don’t think that analogy holds, and without it, I don’t see how the argument is supposed to go. But if the argument works, then the right conclusion to draw is that there is no obligation, prima facie or ultima facie, to believe the truth.

    Your last paragraph, as far as I understand it, insists that we don’t commit levels confusions in epistemology. With that point I agree wholeheartedly.

  7. Jon,

    I’m glad we agree on the last part, I just prefer to say it using a lot more words.

    I was trying to show that you couldn’t use the Rossian model to support a view that recognized both a duty to refrain from believing the false and a duty to revise your beliefs in light of perceptual experience. If you wanted to use the Rossian model, I didn’t think you could break free of a more evidentialist account of epistemic oughts of the sort Conee and Feldman seem to want to defend and would have to say that there simply is no obligation to refrain from believing what is false.

    I suppose I do think that in the realm of belief, what is right all things considered is to believe what is true. I could see that someone might say that I’ve made a mistake about what is really of value from the epistemic point of view (Sutton and Williamson would say it is knowledge), but from a value-theoretic point of view, I have a hard time understanding the justification for alternatives. Maybe evidentialists could say they accept either my suggestion or Williamson’s suggestion but follow the rule-consequentialist strategy of evaluating principles or rules rather than particular beliefs in light of the value theory. I’ve always thought rule consequentialist views either collapsed into act-consequentialism or were incoherent though so this option didn’t strike me as all that palatable.

    Would you be willing to say more about why you don’t think the analogy holds? I’ve found this to be incredibly useful. Plus its my birthday today and to be perfectly honest what I wanted more than anything else this year is a plausible account of epistemic justification.

  8. Hey, happy birthday Clayton! And to think that if you had a genie you’d use a wish on a philosophical theory!!

    So, I guess I’d say this. The fundamental epistemic values are truth and understanding (of the right sort for the latter), but there’s no straightforward connection between epistemic value and epistemic obligations (if there are such). Your citing rule utilitarianism as a model here is an apt suggestion, and I think the view that it collapses into act utilitarianism is no longer the issue it used to be (I’m thinking of Brad Hooker’s work here, especially).

    There’s also the issue of whether there are epistemic obligations at all, and if such talk is something like a category mistake when applied to beliefs, then we are left with the values in question and the value of various ways of properties a belief might have, where the value of these properties is extrinsic. Given this array of intrinsic and extrinsic properties, the governing question will be which of these values defines the cognizer’s context regarding the question of what to believe, and this question, if you ask me, has to be answered by appeal to the properties internalists favor, since only these have the capacity to guide belief-formation and revision in such a way that cognitive changes make sense or are intelligible to the cognizer.

    Too many promissory notes written in one place here, I’m afraid…

  9. Underneath every version of contextualism should be something akin to the question Claire faces. There will be some distinguished epistemic problem which defines the primary epistemic question for the person involved, and this issue will make the agentâ??s context distinguished in such a way that the agentâ??s context robs other contexts of the autonomy needed for contextualism to be true about this particular epistemic concept. Call this concept the noncontextualist concept

    I’m not sure I’m understanding you correctly here, Jon, but…
    I take it the “person involved” is the S of “S knows that P.” I certainly agree that S’s practical situation often make certain epistemic standards “distinguished” in that it renders them the best/proper standards to use when discussing whether S “knows” in connection with various issues of how S should act (“S should do such-and-such only if she knows that blah-blah”). Contextualism allows speakers to use those S-distinguished standards when their conversational purposes call for it. But it also allows them to use other standards when they have different conversational purposes. Which is good b/c speakers often do use standards other than those that S’s practical situation calls for. This esp. happens when speakers are discussing whether S “knows”, not in relation to S’s own current practical situation, but in relation to the issue of whether the speakers might well use S as an informant.

    Notice what happens in epistemology if we accept such an argument. It doesnâ??t follow that contextualism about knowledge is false, but something very interesting does follow. . . . Whatâ??s interesting from my own point of view, however, is the more general point that contextualism is not a deep epistemological theory, if Williamsonâ??s argument is correct. It is not deep because any concept of which it is true is not the concept that really matters from an agentâ??s epistemic point of view.

    If by contextualism’s being a “deep epistemological theory” you just mean a theory according to which speakers must always use the standards appropriate to the subject’s practical situation, then contextualism (at least as it’s best developed) isn’t a “deep” theory. It is a theory that allows speakers to use the S-distinguished standards, and thus is a theory that can explain how “knows” is often used in contexts where S’s practial situation is being assessed. But it also allows speakers to use other standards when their conversational purposes call for that.

  10. I’m inclined to agree, Keith, that knowledge is not the privileged epistemic notion here: as I’ve posted on before, I don’t think it is defensible to hold that knowledge is the norm of belief, which is what Williamson needs to employ his analogy to conclude that contextualism is false about knowledge.

    On the other point, by a deep theory, I mean one that identifies what is important from a cognizer’s point of view or context, important in such a way that if Williamson’s argument is sound, contextualism can’t be true of that epistemic item. As such, contextualism as it stands could be a deep theory, if Williamson’s argument is faulty. But if his argument is good, contextualism about, say, knowledge, can only be a partial aspect of an epistemological theory, if that theory is going to be a deep one.

  11. Clayton is absolutely right to highlight the analogy between Tim Williamson’s argument against the context-sensitivity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and Judy Thomson’s argument against the context-sensitivity of ‘ought’.

    Neither argument comes even close to showing that contextualism about these terms is false. At most, these arguments show that there is an ‘ought’, and a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, of deliberation and advice. It is this kind of ‘ought’, or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, that matters to the agent when she is deciding what to do. But this obviously does nothing whatsoever to show that there aren’t other kinds of ‘ought’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, etc. In fact, there are in my view utterly compelling reasons to think that ‘ought’, and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, are context-sensitive.

    It’s particularly weird that Judy is so adamant that ‘ought’ isn’t context-sensitive, given that she spends so much time emphasizing the context-sensitivity of ‘good’. Her ability to recall the most ordinary linguistic evidence just deserts her when she comes to consider ‘ought’. Of course, Judy is right that ‘ought’ isn’t simply ambiguous (between a “moral” and an “instrumental” sense) in the way that e.g. Prichard thought. But it seems to me that ‘ought’ is just obviously context-sensitive in at least the ways that e.g. Sidgwick thought it was.

  12. Ralph, I expected to hear from you on this! I’m going to post an account of what I take Williamson’s argument to be (it’s actually a little mysterious how it works…), and give you a chance to say what’s wrong with it, but I have a quick question here. I’m not quite sure how to understand two points that you make here about moral terms. You first say that the arguments may show that there is a ‘wrong’ of deliberation and advice, and that this doesn’t rule out there being other kinds of ‘wrong’ that are context-sensitive. You use the language of kinds, rather than a more semantic account in terms of senses of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’–do you intend by that language to deny the ambiguity view of these different kinds? The reason I ask is because you use the language of kinds, but still put the moral terms in quotes; if you’re denying the ambiguity claim, I would expect you to talk simply of kinds of right and wrong, not kinds of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

    In any case, I’m assuming you want to deny ambiguity here, which is how I came to be puzzled…

  13. Sorry, I was being a bit sloppy here. A more precise statement would be the following: I take terms like ‘wrong’ and ‘ought’ to have a systematically context-sensitive meaning. This meaning is, roughly, a function from contexts to concepts — so that the term expresses different concepts in different contexts. One of the concepts that ‘wrong’ (and ‘ought’) express in some contexts is especially connected to deliberation and advice, etc.; but there are other concepts that the terms express in different contexts, which do not have the same tight connection to deliberation and advice.

    I’ll post a comment on your other post, to explain more precisely where I think the Thomson / Williamson argument goes wrong.

  14. That’s helpful, Ralph, and since you’ll post about where you think the argument goes wrong on the other entry, I’ll follow-up there if I still have questions after seeing the way you resist the argument.

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