February 04, 2004

Old Enough to Know Better

Jason Stanley (section 2) has argued that one of the problems for contextualists' account of knowledge is that "know" doesn't admit of degree modifiers. Because bigness is a sliding scale, it makes sense to say one thing can be bigger than another--so it makes sense to have the context set the threshold for how big you have to be to count as "big" tout court. But "know" seems to act funny when you try to put it in comparative forms--it's funny to say "Jack knows p more than q." We don't seem to have much of a way to talk about degrees of knowledge.

Except--when I was prepping the Posterior Analytics this morning I ran across this:

"So since the primary premisses are the cause of our knowledge--i.e. of our conviction--it follows that we know them better--that is, are more convinced of them--than their consequences, precisely because our knowledge of the latter is the effect of our knowledge of the premisses" (72a30-32).

Stanley considers "Hannah knows better than anyone that she is poor," and argues that "better than anyone" is an idiom that doesn't support inferences about the semantics of "know" (p. 10). But Aristotle isn't using that idiom--and it sure seems like he's using it to express degrees of knowledge.

Does this make me the first person ever to cite Aristotle in defense of contextualism about knowledge?

Lots of caveats:
(1) Aristotle didn't write in English. I have no idea what the Greek is.
(2) This is a philosophers' use. Nothing here suggests that hoi polloi should find "know better than" acceptable.
(3) Aristotle was writing a long time ago. We might not want to accept his theory of knowledge today.
(4) Aristotle talks about "firmer conviction" rather than "better evidence." [In another translation, it's "both know and are convinced of them better."] Contextualists seem to talk about better evidence (though it seems to me that firmer conviction goes along with it).
(5) Lots of others that I'm sure I've missed.

But--I think that if we're going to approach the question as epistemologists, trying to find out what concept of knowledge we should have, Aristotle's usage is significant. It suggests that the reason we reject sentences like "Jack knows p more than q" may be that the folk today don't hold Aristotelian conceptions of knowledge. If you want to argue for a contextualist conception of knowledge, you'll have to overturn some folk beliefs anyway--it's not surprising that you'd recommend a change in our usage of "know."

(Of course, if contextualists want to argue that their theory provides the best account of how we actually use "know," Jason's evidence will cause them trouble--and Aristotle may not help them that much. Since Jason's paper is called "On The Linguistic Basis for Contextualism," it seems only fair to note that. :-))

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 4, 2004 06:38 PM

I share Jason's views about knowledge *that*: it seems unnatural to say 'I know that p better than I know that q'. However, what about knowledge by acquaintance? Example: 'I know Bruce better than I know Sheila'; 'I used to know Shane well, but now I barely know him at all'; 'I used to know my way around Boston very well, now not so well': all of these formulations seem perfectly natural to me.

Maybe an analysis of 'I know Bruce better than Sheila' would reveal a form something like 'Of all facts Pn about X, and Qn about Y, I know more Pn than Qn'. So maybe this example would reduce to good old knowledge that, and hence encounter Jason's problem again.

However, 'knows X', as it is used in the Bruce-Sheila example still does admit of degree modification, even if the semantics of the degree modifier 'better' is explicated by reference to quantification over a domain of knowledge of facts *about* X. In this way, perhaps, 'knows X', where X is some non-propositional object, such as a person, city etc., could be viewed as an example of 'sliding scale' knowledge, as you put it. I'm not sure if this is much use to the contextualist, however.

Posted by: Will Davies at February 10, 2004 05:15 PM

I think you're right that knowledge-of won't be of any use to the contextualist; contextualists would really need degree modification of knowledge-that. In the Bruce-Sheila example each of the individual facts is either completely known or completely not known; no room has been made for contextual variation there. You will have contextual variation concerning exactly how well you need to know Sheila to say "I know Sheila," but that won't exactly help you solve the skeptical problem! (As contextualists think they're doing, usually.)

The "fact" analysis of "I know Sheila" won't quite pass, though. If I am an obsessed fan of Sheila's and have managed to learn tons of facts about her, that still won't mean I know her--I just know a lot about her. Knowing a person means, well, acquaintance.

Edward Craig discusses knowing a person some in his excellent book, Knowledge and the State of Nature. IIRC I thought that that part of his analysis didn't work quite so well. It seems to me that knowing a person is a symmetric relation--if I know you, then you also know me, and IIRC Craig didn't capture that.

(Stanley does talk about "I know logic better than history." In the first draft of his paper he said that some of his informants found such sentences acceptable--I was surprised it was only some.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at February 10, 2004 07:32 PM

As Will points out, knowledge-of is clearly gradeable; I thought I was explicit about that in the final version of "On the Linguistic Basis for Contextualism".
I'll have to get someone to check the Greek on the Aristotle quotation...but note that philosophers even know talk of someone knowing a proposition better than someone else (I think I cite a quote from Lewis to this effect, from "Elusive Knowledge")...it seems to me such uses involve importing a theory into ordinary talk.

Posted by: Jason Stanley at February 11, 2004 06:30 AM

I'm pretty sure you were explicit about the gradability of knowing-how in the final version of "On the Linguistic Basis..." I should have been more explicit about that. Sorry.

I agree that talk of "knowing p better" is, at least in Lewis, the importation of theory into ordinary talk. Whether that's a bad thing is another issue....

Thanks for stopping by, anyway, and come back often!

Posted by: Matt Weiner at February 11, 2004 09:10 AM