June 10, 2005

A Case for Contextualism

In the comments to this post Brian W raises a general challenge to contextualist theories:

I think if contextualism were true there should be a ton of cases satisfying all the following constraints, but I donít know of any.

A says S knows that p.
B says S knows that p.
Itís clear to A, B and everyone in their audiences that p is true. All of those people uncontroversially know that p.
Itís clear that neither A nor B are using 'know' to mean mere information possession [approx. mere true belief, I think--MW], nor knowledge by Unger-sceptical-standards.
Intuitively, what A says is true, and what B says is false.

I think it helps a lot to go into the past tense--"S knew" rather than "S knows." And I think there's a good reason the past tense is necessary. So first a try at a past-tense case. With lots of detail.

Three months ago, Joey Mumbles visited First National Bank on a Saturday and found it open.

Last Friday, Joey's next door neighbors, Louie and Lola, were thinking about depositing their paychecks. They went to the bank, stood in a long line, didn't have a great time, and were sort of annoyed when they left to read the bank's hours on the wall and see that it was open Saturday. It wouldn't have been so bad if they'd gone Saturday, found it closed, and had to come back Monday.

Also last Friday, Joey's associates Heshel and Hyman were thinking of doing a job on the bank on Saturday--they had to set the plans in motion right then if the plan would go into action. If they tried to do the job and the bank wasn't open, things would have gone very poorly indeed. Joey would've been at Heshel and Hyman's meeting, but the cops have been hassling Joey lately so he's laying low a little bit. On Saturday, Heshel and Hyman went by the bank (unarmed!) and saw that it was, indeed, open.

Now it's Sunday. Louie and Lola are eating bagels and lox and talking about how the last two days went. Heshel and Hyman are also--somewhere else--eating bagels and lox and talking about how the last two days went.

Louie says, "That was a real pain at the bank Friday. And we could've avoided it if we'd just found someone who knew that the bank was open Saturday. I bet Joey Mumbles knew that the bank was open Saturday. We should've asked him before we went."
Lola says, "Are you sure Joey knew? Joey isn't always the most reliable guy."
Louie says, "Yeah, I bet he knew. In fact, I think he says he uses that bank himself sometimes. In the last few months, I bet he's been there on Saturday at least once. We would've been in perfectly good shape if we'd asked him. He knew that the bank was open Saturday."

Meanwhile, Heshel says, "The bank was open Saturday after all. We could've pulled the job off. If only Joey had been able to make the meeting. He'd have told us the bank was open Saturday."
Hyman says, "Do you think it would've been safe, really? I mean, do you think it would've been smart to go in on Joey's word alone? Do you think Joey knew the bank was open Saturday?"
Heshel says, "Sure, Joey knew the bank was open Saturday. Why wouldn't he know?"

I think it's pretty intuitive that Louie speaks the truth when he says that Joey knew the bank was open Saturday, and I think it's pretty intuitive that Heshel speaks falsely when he says the same thing.* At least, these cases are as intuitive as the usual Bank Cases that support contextualism.

And the case fulfills the rest of Brian's desiderata. On Sunday, when the conversations take place, Louie, Lola, Heshel, and Hyman all know perfectly well that the bank was open Saturday. Nobody's using an Unger-skeptical standard, and I don't think anyone's using a standard by which mere information possession is enough. Louie and Lola want to know whether Joey had pretty good evidence that the bank was open Saturday, which he did; so that it would've been reasonable for them to rely on his word, if they'd had it. Heshel and Hyman also want to know whether it would've been reasonable to rely on Joey's word alone. But--since they don't know Joey's evidence was three months old--it wouldn't have been.

Why is it important that this be in the past tense? In this case, everyone's talking about whether Joey would have been a good informant for they themselves. So the purpose of the conversation, in each case, concerns the aims and projects of the people making the knowledge ascriptions. If they had known before what they know now, they would've been able to carry out their projects. The debate concerns whether Joey, as an informant, would've given them strong enough evidence that it would've made sense to act on what he said. And, since they're reviewing what they might have done, we can give them knowledge of what Joey would have said without making it completely pointless to have used Joey as an informant.

When you do present tense cases it'll be very hard to satisfy all Brian's conditions and make the standards dependent on the ascriber's aims and projects rather than the subjects. The ascriber knows that p--that's a condition. The ascriber is talking about whether the subject knows that p. Why? Not because they want to find out whether the subject has the information that p--that's another condition. They must be talking about whether the subject has good evidence that p. But not because the subject is a potential informant--the ascriber already knows that p and doesn't need an informant.

So the conversation probably concerns whether the subject is acting rationally, or something like that. And that means that what counts as good evidence is going to be measured by the subject's standards. It's just hard to construct a context in the present tense in which all of Brian's conditions are satisfied and it's the ascriber's standards rather than the subject's that matter.

(I also note that in the comment quoted above Brian remarks that much of the data supporting contextualism can be explained by the principle "plausibly you shouldnít say S knows that p when you shouldnít say p." But this principle runs into the hedging problem.)

*And if you've just been reading Insensitive Semantics, you may think what I just said makes no sense whatsoever for a contextualist about the word 'knows'. That's OK, because I'm not really a contextualist. I have a theory about why similar locutions can be OK for contextualists, when uttered in contexts where you're discussing the semantics of the context-dependent terms, like this one. But that's another paper (in draft form--e-mail me if you wanna see it).

Posted by Matt Weiner at June 10, 2005 04:18 PM

So is this Joey guy named Mumbles or Knuckles or what?

Posted by: ben wolfson at June 12, 2005 01:33 PM

Mumbles, of course. I don't see anything that would lead anyone to think otherwise. Do you?

Posted by: Matt Weiner at June 12, 2005 06:30 PM

Not anymore, no.

Posted by: ben wolfson at June 13, 2005 11:15 AM