Epistemic Contextualism and the Shifting the Question Objection

Authored by: Brian Montgomery

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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Epistemic contextualism is the thesis that the semantic value of a knowledge claim of the form “S knows that p” varies with the epistemic standards in play for the asserter at the time of assertion. Invariantists about “knowledge” – those who believe that the semantics of knowledge claims remain the same between contexts – have traditionally criticized contextualism in one of two ways. First, there is the common argument that the set of claims comprising contextualism is false. This may be done by arguing against the intuitions that motivate it, claiming that it gets the cases wrong, holding that it runs into semantic difficulties, or coming up with reasons for thinking that non-epistemic properties fail to effect knowledge claims. Objections of this type are discussed at length in other sections of this volume, and this will be the last that we discuss them here. Instead, we will focus on a separate objection that constitutes a metacritique of the entire contextualist’s project. Consider the following:

some of the most important epistemological views in recent years – e.g. contextualism, subject sensitive invariantism – have been grounded in large part in a close consideration of the semantics of knowledge ascriptions … the proper focus in epistemology should begin to shift back to traditional considerations involving justification, warrant, evidence, and so on – which is where it should have been all along.

(Lackey 2007, 619) Here Lackey expresses the belief that views like contextualism and subject sensitive invariantism aren’t wrong so much as they are wrongheaded. In this way they serve as a red herring that distracts the epistemologist from the proper investigation. To put it another way, whatever the contextualist is doing when she talks about “knowledge”, she isn’t doing epistemology.

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