The Psychological Context of Contextualism

Authored by: Jennifer Nagel , Julia Jael Smith

The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Contextualism

Print publication date:  March  2017
Online publication date:  March  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138818392
eBook ISBN: 9781315745275
Adobe ISBN: 9781317594697


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Philosophy is not the only discipline concerned with shifting epistemic intuitions. Psychology also studies intuitive impressions of knowledge, often with an eye to the ways in which these intuitive impressions can shift as circumstances change. Cognitive and social psychologists explore factors figuring prominently in the contrasting cases motivating contextualism, including rising and falling practical stakes, heightened self-consciousness, and worries about the possibility of error. In some cases, these factors are taken to distort perceptions of knowledge in the attributor, causing the impression of a shift in knowledge where no real shift in knowledge has occurred. In other cases, these factors are taken to have an impact on the subject’s actual possession of knowledge, for example by raising or lowering the subject’s confidence. Where attributor perceptions of knowledge march in step with variations in the subject’s knowledge, there is no reason to consider a shift in perceptions mistaken, but such shifts may risk being misunderstood by theorists who are unaware of the subtle ways in which contextual circumstances change a subject’s cognition. If the key claim of contextualism is that statements of the form “S knows that p” can express propositions differing in truth value for subjects matched on traditional epistemic factors (such as confidence and accuracy), philosophers need to be aware of the subtle ways in which these traditional epistemic factors can change, and be instinctively registered as changing, in response to changing circumstances. Equally, philosophers who are sympathetic to contextualism will want to know how it might be psychologically possible for us to deploy shifting standards in evaluating others.

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