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Contextualism in Epistemology-A Bibliography

Keith DeRose

This is for students who wish to research the topic.  I’m sure it’s incomplete.  Still, it might provide a good start.  For the benefit of those looking to get up to speed on the topic without doing a huge amount of reading, I have put in section I, “Main Works,” some of what I consider to be the more essential papers.  Of course, this selection is controversial; others surely would have selected other works as “Main.”  “PI” at the beginning of an abstract indicates that the abstract is from the Philosopher’s Index.  “I”, “J”, “R”, “E”, “K”, and “S” indicate on-line availability or availability in widely used anthologies; see the bottom of this page for explanation.  By “contextualism”, I mean the type of view that is advocated, discussed, or attacked in the pieces listed below in sections I, II, and IV.  (For more on contextualism and a bit on its history, see my “Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense,” listed below in section II.)  Other related but different views in epistemology often go by the name of contextualism; some works about these other contextualisms are listed in section V.

3/27/06: I have to update this bibliography.  I have been adding new papers to the “New/Forthcoming Publications” section immediately below.  But I have to integrate that new material into the rest of this bibliography, deciding which belong in the “Main Works” section, etc. — or it may best to reorganize this whole bibliography somehow.  Anyway, I probably won’t be able to get that done until the summer (of ’06).  In the meantime, this bib is outdated, and reading what I now list as the “Main Works,” as opposed to some of the new papers, will take you in some wrong directions.  For example, among my own papers, “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions” (1992) is now listed among the “Main Works,” but has been surpassed by newer papers I have written that are not listed there, so one just reading what I designate as “Main Works” won’t be reading my best case for contextualism.  A guide to my own writings on contextualism — what to read for those who are only going to read a few of my papers, but want to read the best — is available here.  But I do hope to get this whole bibliography into better shape some time this summer.


New/Forthcoming Publications:

  • Forthcoming: Jeremy Fantl and Matthew McGrath, “Knowledge and the Purely Epistemic: A Defense of Pragmatic Encroachment,” forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomonological Research; draft available here (word doc.).  Contains criticisms of contextualism as it argues for a rival view that’s in the same ballpark with Stanley’s position, and the view Hawthorne seems to like the most, in the works mentioned below.   A follow-up to Fantl & McGrath’s earlier. A follow-up to Fantl & McGrath’s earlier “Evidence, Pragmatics, and Justification,” Philosophical Review 111 (2002): 67-97; draft available here (word doc.).
  • Forthcoming: Keith DeRose, “‘Bamboozled by Our Own Words’: Semantic Blindeness and Some Objections to Contextualism,” forthcoming, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research; draft available on-line: pdf , word.  Answers several objections to contextualism, including objections voiced by Stephen Schiffer and John Hawthorne.
  • Out Now: Jason Stanley’s book, Knowledge and Practical Interests, which has a lot of critical material on contextualism as Stanley argues for a form of subject-sensitive invariantism, should be out some time in the Fall of ’05.
  • Papers from a conference on “Epistemological Contextualism,” held on March 20-21, 2004, at the University of Stirling in Scotland are now published  in a special issue, “Contextualism: Problems and Prospects” (April 2005), of The Philosophical Quarterly:
    • ARTICLES
      • Michael Brady & Duncan Pritchard: Epistemological Contextualism: Problems and Prospects
      • Keith DeRose: The Ordinary Language Basis for Contextualism, and the New Invariantism
      • Stewart Cohen: Knowledge, Speaker and Subject
      • Timothy Williamson: Contextualism, Subject-Sensitive Invariantism and Knowledge of Knowledge
      • Crispin Wright: Contextualism and Scepticism: Even-Handedness, Factivity and Surreptitiously Raising Standards
      • Jessica Brown: Adapt or Die: the Death of Invariantism?
      • Charles Travis: A Sense of Occasion
    • DISCUSSIONS
      • Anthony Brueckner: Contextualism, Hawthorne’s Invariantism and Third-Person Cases
      • Jessica Brown: Williamson on Luminosity and Contextualism
      • Tim Black: Classic Invariantism, Relevance and Warranted Assertability Manoeuvres
      • Alan Millar: Travis’ Sense of Occasion
  • Book: John Hawthorne, Knowledge and Lotteries, Oxford UP [UK, US].  With lots on contextualism & invariantism.
  • Papers from a conference, entitled “Contextualism in Epistemology and Beyond,” held on Oct. 11-13, 2002 at UMass, Amherst, are now published in a special double issue of Philosophical Studies, and are available for those with subscriber access to Philosophical Studies by clicking on Vol. 119, Number 1-2 on the Phil Studs web site, here.  For those who do not have such access, the conference web site (click here) has preliminary versions of the main papers posted.  Papers:
    • Keith DeRose, “Single Scoreboard Semantics”; comments by Richard Feldman.
    • Jonathan Schaffer, “From Contextualism to Contrastivism in Epistemology”; comments by Robert Stalnaker
    • Stephen Schiffer, “Skepticism and the Vagaries of Justified Belief”; comments by Stewart Cohen
    • Ernest Sosa, “Relevant Alternatives, Contextualism Included”; comments by James Pryor
    • Jason Stanley, “On the Linguistic Basis for Contextualism”; comments by Barbara Partee
    • Ram Neta, “Perceptual Evidence and the New Dogmatism”
    • Mark Richard, “Contextualism and Relativism”
  • Other Papers:
    • John MacFarlane, “The Assessment Sensitivity of Knowledge Attributions,” to appear in Oxford Studies in Epistemology, 2005 (link to preliminary version [pdf file]).  Critiques standard contextualism & invariantism on its way to presenting a new, “relativist” alternative.
    • Thomas Blackson, “An Invalid Argument for Contextualism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 68 (2004): 344-345.
    • Keith DeRose, “The Problem with Subject-Sensitive Invariantism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 68 (2004): 346-350.
    • Keith DeRose, “Sosa, Safety, Sensitivity, and Skeptical Hypotheses,” in J. Greco, ed., Sosa and His Critics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers).

I.  Main Works

1. Stewart Cohen, “How to be a Fallibilist,” Philosophical Perspectives 2 (1988): 581-605. [J]

PI – THIS PAPER ATTEMPTS TO SHOW HOW A FALLIBILIST EPISTEMOLOGY–ONE THAT DENIES THAT S KNOWS P ON THE BASIS OF R ONLY IF R ENTAILS P–CAN AVOID SKEPTICAL PROBLEMS THAT ARISE FROM VARIOUS CLOSURE PRINCIPLES. THE STRATEGY INVOLVES THE DEFENSE OF AN INDEXICAL THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE MODELLED ON THE THEORY OF RELEVANT ALTERNATIVES. I ALSO ARGUE THAT, CONTRARY TO WHAT MANY HAVE CLAIMED, SUCH A THEORY CAN PROVIDE A SATISFACTORY TREATMENT OF SKEPTICISM WITHOUT SPECIFYING PRECISE CRITERIA OF RELEVANCE.

2. Stewart Cohen, “Contextualist Solutions to Epistemological Problems: Scepticism, Gettier, and the Lottery,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76 (1998): 289-306. [E]

3. Stewart Cohen, “Contextualism, Skepticism, and the Structure of Reasons,” Philosophical Perspectives 13 (1999): 57-89.  [I]

4. Keith DeRose, “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (1992): 913-929. [J]

RM – This paper is an exposition, clarification, and defense of contextualism: the view that there is a contextually determined variance in the epistemic standards a subject S must meet in order for a sentence attributing knowledge to S to be true.  Part I introduces and motivates the discussion of contextualism by means of a pair of cases which displays such a variation of epistemic standards.  Part II distinguishes contextualism from what has been called the Relevant Alternatives theory of knowledge (RA).  It is argued that of the two types of factors which are plausibly thought on RA to affect what the range of relevant alternatives is, only one type affects the meaning or content of a knowledge attribution; that one can accept RA without being a contextualist; and that RA theorists have gone wrong in attempting to tie the content of a knowledge attribution on a given occasion of use too closely to what the range of relevant alternatives is on that occasion.  Part III defends contextualism from objections that initially appear to be very powerful: the objection that the issue of whether a subject knows something or not seems to be independent of the contextual interests of those who happen to be talking about the subject at a given time; and the related charge that, after a knowledge claim is made and the standards for knowledge then go up, contextualism would countenance such an absurd utterance as, “Well, I did know before, but I no longer know.”  It is shown that contextualism would have you say no such thing.

5. Keith DeRose, “Solving the Skeptical Problem,” Philosophical Review 104 (1995): 1-52. [J,E*,S]

A new contextualist response to the problem of skepticism, built upon the “Rule of Sensitivity,” is explained and shown to be superior to other solutions, including other contextualist solutions, Nozick’s solution, and, especially, skeptical solutions.  It is argued that the best conclusion we can draw from the skeptic’s argument is that we’re not ordinarily mistaken when we claim or ascribe knowledge, despite the best efforts of the “bold skeptic” to show that we are.  Instead, the main insights to be drawn from a study of the skeptic’s argument involve the context-sensitivity of attributions of knowledge, and the role that the Rule of Sensitivity plays in changing the epistemic standards that govern these attributions.

6. Keith DeRose, “Assertion, Knowledge and Context,” Philosophical Review 111 (2002): 167-203.

7. Robert Hambourger, “Justified Assertion and the Relativity of Knowledge,” Philosophical Studies 51 (1987): 241-269.

PI – HOW MUCH EVIDENCE IS NEEDED FOR KNOWLEDGE SEEMS SET INFLEXIBLY AND INDEPENDENTLY OF PRAGMATIC CONSIDERATIONS. I ARGUE, HOWEVER, THAT THIS IS NOT SO AND THAT THE “TRUTH” OF KNOWLEDGE CLAIMS, LIKE THE JUSTIFIABILITY OF THEIR ASSERTION, VARIES WITH THE CHANGING “STANDARDS OF CAUTION” WE MUST MEET FOR ASSERTIONS TO BE JUSTIFIED. THE PAPER IS MOSTLY DEVOTED TO A DETAILED DEFENSE OF THIS THESIS, BUT I ALSO TRY TO SHOW ITS SIGNIFICANCE FOR DISCUSSIONS OF SCEPTICISM.

8. John Hawthorne, Knowledge and Lotteries (Oxford UP, 2004)

9. David Lewis, “Elusive Knowledge,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (1996): 549-567. [E,K,S]

PI – The analysis of knowledge is simple: S knows that P if S’s evidence eliminates every possibility in which not-P–except for those possibilities that we are properly ignoring. What is complicated, however, is the set of pragmatic rules governing proper ignoring. For one thing, you may not properly ignore a possibility which your conversational partner is right now calling to your attention. So when the sceptic draws your attention to some far-fetched possibility of error, he thereby destroys your knowledge–but only temporarily.

10. Ram Neta, “Contextualism and the Problem of the External World,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66 (2003): 1-31.

Contextualists commonly attempt to solve the skeptical puzzle by claiming that the skeptic tacitly raises the standards for knowledge.  I argue that no such “standard raising” solution succeeds.  The skeptic should be understood as arguing that we don’t even satisfy our ordinary standards for knowledge.  The plausibility of her argument results not from her raising the standards for knowledge, but rather from her constricting what can count as evidence.  She does this by unwittingly exploiting the context-sensitivity of our attributions of evidence.

11.  Patrick Rysiew, “The Context-Sensitivity of Knowledge Attributions,” Noûs 35 (2001): 477-514. [I]

It is suggested by its proponents that contextualism (the view that the truth conditions of knowledge-attributing sentences vary with the context in which they are uttered) provides the best overall way of accommodating the manifest flexibility in our willingness to attribute knowledge and of solving certain sceptical puzzles. Here, it is argued that contextualism faces certain theoretical difficulties, that the context-sensitivity exhibited by our knowledge-attributing practices is best explained in pragmatic terms, that familiar objections to ‘sophisticated invariantism’ can be answered, and that pragmatic phenomena such as those described here can shed light on the seeming power of sceptical arguments.

12.  Stephen Schiffer, “Contextualist Solutions to Scepticism,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 96 (1996): 317-333.

13.  Jason Stanley, Knowledge and Practical Interests (Oxford UP, 2005).[I]

Jason Stanley presents a startling and provocative claim about knowledge: that whether or not someone knows a proposition at a given time is in part determined by his or her practical interests.  Whether a true belief is knowledge is not merely a matter of supporting beliefs or reliability; in the case of knowledge, practical rationality and theoretical rationality are intertwined.  Stanley defends this thesis against alternative accounts of the phenomena that motivate it, such as the claim that knowledge attributions are linguistically context-sensitive (contextualism about knowledge attributions), and the claim that the truth of a knowledge claim is somehow relative to the person making the claim (relativism about knowledge).

14. Peter Unger, Philosophical Relativity (University of Minnesota Press, 1984). [S*]

PI – THERE IS NO CORRECT POSITION ON MANY TRADITIONAL PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS. WHY? THERE ARE TWO OPTIMAL WAYS TO DEVELOP A THEORY OF OUR ADAPTIVE THOUGHT. ON ONE, WE HAVE A SIMPLE CONTEXT-INVARIANT SEMANTICS FOR MANY OF OUR TERMS, INCLUDING ‘KNOW’, ‘CAUSE’, ‘FREE’ AND ‘EXPLAIN’. THEN WE HAVE A COMPLEX PRAGMATICS. ALTERNATIVELY, WE ASSIGN A SIMPLE PRAGMATICS, BUT A COMPLEX CONTEXT-SENSITIVE SEMANTICS. THE FIRST WAY YIELDS SKEPTICAL POSITIONS ON THE PROBLEMS; THE SECOND YIELDS COMMONSENSE POSITIONS. BUT THE TWO WAYS ARE EQUIVALENT.

15. Peter Unger, “The Cone Model of Knowledge,” Philosophical Topics 14 (1986): 125-178.


II.  Other Works

-Anthony Brueckner, Review of P. Unger, Philosophical Relativity, in the Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986): 509-517. [J]

-Anthony Brueckner, “The Shifting Content of Knowledge Attributions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54 (1994): 123-126. [J]

PI – Does the content of a knowledge- attributing sentence depend only upon features of the context of utterance? Or do features of the knower’s own context affect such content?  [A discussion of DeRose, “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions.”]

-Stewart Cohen, “Knowledge and Context,” Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986): 574-583 [J]

PI – THIS PAPER DEFENDS THE VIEW THAT STANDARDS, WHICH ARE TYPICALLY SOCIAL IN NATURE, PLAY A ROLE IN DETERMINING WHETHER A SUBJECT HAS KNOWLEDGE. ULTIMATELY, I ARGUE THAT THE STANDARDS ARE CONTEXT SENSITIVE AND, AS SUCH, WE MUST VIEW ATTRIBUTIONS OF KNOWLEDGE AS INDEXICAL. I EXPLOIT SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THIS VIEW AND A VERSION OF THE RELEVANT ALTERNATIVES REPLY TO SKEPTICISM IN ORDER TO DEFEND THIS REPLY AGAINST THE OBJECTION THAT IT IS “AD HOC”.  KDR: This was the abstract of an APA talk, and was later supplanted by Cohen’s “Knowledge, Context, and Social Standards” (immediately below; compare the abstracts).  However, since this shorter version was in JP, it is now on JSTOR, and so may be more accessible to some readers than the more complete paper in Synthese.

-Stewart Cohen, “Knowledge, Context, and Social Standards,” Synthese 73 (1987): 3-26.

PI – THIS PAPER DEFENDS THE VIEW THAT STANDARDS, WHICH ARE TYPICALLY SOCIAL IN NATURE, PLAY A ROLE IN DETERMINING WHETHER A SUBJECT HAS KNOWLEDGE. WHILE THE ARGUMENT FOCUSES ON STANDARDS THAT PERTAIN TO REASONING, I ALSO CONSIDER WHETHER THERE ARE SIMILAR STANDARDS FOR MEMORY AND PERCEPTION. ULTIMATELY, I ARGUE THAT THE STANDARDS ARE CONTEXT SENSITIVE AND, AS SUCH, WE MUST VIEW ATTRIBUTIONS OF KNOWLEDGE AS INDEXICAL. I EXPLOIT SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THIS VIEW AND A VERSION OF THE RELEVANT ALTERNATIVES REPLY TO SKEPTICISM IN ORDER TO DEFEND THIS REPLY AGAINST THE OBJECTION THAT IS AD HOC.

-Stewart Cohen, “Skepticism and Everyday Knowledge Attributions,” in Doubting: Contemporary Perspectives on Skepticism (Kluwer, 1990).

-Stewart Cohen, “Skepticism, Relevance, and Relativity,” in B. McLaughlin, ed., Dretske and His Critics (Blackwell, 1991).

-Stewart Cohen, “Contextualism and Skepticism,” (pp. 94-107) and “Replies [to Klein, Hawthorne, and Prades]” (pp. 132-139), Philosophical Issues (Noûs) 10 (2000). [I]

-Stewart Cohen, “Contextualism Defended: Comments on Richard Feldman’s Skeptical Problems, Contextualist Solutions,” Philosophical Studies 103 (2001): 87-98.  [I]

-Keith DeRose, “Relevant Alternatives and the Content of Knowledge Attributions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 56 (1996): pp. 193-197. [J]

A reply to Brueckner, “The Shifting Content of Knowledge Attributions.”

-Keith DeRose, “The Second Problem, the Context-Sensitivity of Knowledge, and the Methodology of Flat-Footed, ‘All-in-One-Breath’ Conjunctions,” section 3 (pp. 69-72) of “Simple ‘Might’s, Indicative Possibilities, and the Open Future,” Philosophical Quarterly 48 (1998): 67-82. [I]

-Keith DeRose, “Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense,” in J. Greco and E. Sosa, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology (Blackwell Publishers, 1999), pp. 187-205.

This paper explains epistemic contextualism, its precursors and history, its relation to other views in epistemology, and its importance to the problem of skepticism.  Contextualism is then defended from what is perhaps the most important objection it faces: that the contextualist has mistaken taken variability in the conditions of warranted assertability of knowledge attributions for a variability in their truth-conditions.

-Keith DeRose, “Now You Know It, Now You Don’t,” Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy (Philosophy Documentation Center, 2000); Vol. V, Epistemology: 91-106. [Link]

Expanding in various ways on my earlier response in “Contextualism and Knolwedge Attributions, ” this paper answers a group of related charges against contextualism that I call “Now you know it, now you don’t” objections.  According to these objections, contextualism would have us say things along the lines of, “Well, I used to know it, but now I don’t,” when all that’s changed is the conversational context.  I show that contextualism would have us say no such thing.  Also, some, including David Lewis, an advocate of contextualism, say such things as that, according to contextualism, skeptics, and others who raise the standards for knowledge, “destroy” knowledge or “rob” us of our knowledge, even if only temporarily.  But, I argue, when the standards for knowledge are raised so that we no longer meet them, no knowledge is destroyed: the “high” knowledge that we lack was absent all along, and the “low” knowledge we used to have is still possessed.

-Keith DeRose, “How Can We Know That We’re Not Brains in Vats?” Southern Journal of Philosophy 38 (2000), Spindel Conference Supplement: 121-148. [Link]

“Contextualist Moorean” solutions to skepticism are explained and critically compared with the most prominent type of “straightforward Moorean” solutions — Putnam-style responses to skepticism.  The former are able to avoid the most serious problems faced by the latter — problems stemming from the disastrously “heroic” nature of the latter.

-Keith DeRose, “Sosa, Safety, Sensitivity, and Skeptical Hypotheses,” in J. Greco, ed., Sosa and His Critics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, forthcoming). [word , pdf]

Contains (in section 8) a response to the key criticism of contextualist approaches to skepticism that Sosa expresses in his “Skepticism and Contextualism,” and compares the contextualist Moorean approach to skepticism with Sosa’s straightforwardly Moorean approach.

-Richard Feldman, “Contextualism and Skepticism,” Philosophical Perspectives (Noûs) 13 (1999): 91-114. [I]

PI – Contextualism about knowledge attributions, as proposed by Steward Cohen, Keith DeRose, and David Lewis, replies to skepticism by contending that knowledge attributions are context sensitive. It asserts that we do satisfy the low standards in place in ordinary contexts but not the higher standards applicable when skepticism is being discussed.  Hence, ordinary knowledge claims are often true but skeptics’ denials of knowledge are typically correct also. I argue that contextualism does not provide a satisfactory response to skepticism because it provides no good response to the central claim defended by skeptics, namely that we do not satisfy the ordinary low standards for knowledge.

-Richard Feldman, “Skeptical Problems, Contextualist Solutions,” Philosophical Studies 103 (2001): 61-85.  [I]

-Mark Heller, “Relevant Alternatives and Closure,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 77 (1999): 196-208.

PI – This paper is an exploration of the relevant alternatives approach to knowledge (RA) and its relationship to skepticism and closure. RA holds that to know p S must be able to rule out all relevant alternatives to p. The simple view is that RA avoids skepticism by rejecting closure: S can be justified in believing p without being justified in believing that there is no evil genius deceiving her about p, different worlds being relevant for the different propositions. This simple view has come under persuasive attack. A more detailed understanding of RA avoids the objections to the simple view.

-Mark Heller, “The Proper Role for Contextualism in an Anti-Luck Epistemology,” Philosophical Perspectives (Noûs) 13 (1999): 115-129. [I]

PI – This paper explores the thesis that contextualism is a separable component of the relevant alternatives epistemology, applicable to questions about the word “knowledge” rather than the property that is referred to by that word in a given context. Understanding this separability eliminates any fear of subjectivism for the relevant alternatives theory and allows us to demarcate contextualism’s value. It is contextualism that answers the skeptical challenge but the pure relevant alternatives theory, separate from the contextualist component, that solves the Gettier problem. The paper also explores some details of context sensitivity, distinguishing different kinds of contributions from different elements of the context.

-Thomas Hofweber, “Contextualism and the Meaning-Intention Problem,” in K. Korta, E. Sosa, X. Arrazola, ed., Cognition, Agency and Rationality, Philosophical Studies Series, vol. 79 (Kluwer, 1999).

-Stephen Jacobson, “Contextualism And Global Doubts About The World,” Synthese 129 (2001): 381-404.

Several recent contextualist theorists (e.g. David Lewis, Michael Williams, and Keith DeRose) have proposed contextualizing the skeptic. Their claim is that one should view satisfactory answers to global doubts regarding such subjects as the external world, other minds, and induction as requirements for justification in certain philosophical contexts, but not in everyday and scientific contexts. In contrast, the skeptic claims that a satisfactory answer to a global doubt in each of these areas is a context-invariant requirement for justified belief. In this paper, I consider and reject the arguments Michael Williams develops in his book Unnatural Doubts that are intended to show that the skeptic’s interpretation of the significance of global doubts is mistaken. In addition, I argue that Williams’ general strategy in opposing the skeptic is extremely interesting and worth further investigation, even if his particular execution of it is unsuccessful. To this end, I clarify the general strategy, distinguish it from a variety of others, and discuss its prospects as an answer to the skeptic.

-Bredo C. Johnsen, “Contextualist Swords, Skeptical Plowshares,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62 (2001): 385-406

PI – Suppose, with contextualists, that “Jones knows p” and “Jones does not know p” may both be true if said by different speakers in different contexts. Does Jones know p or not? Contextualists don’t say; their concern is with knowledge claims, not knowledge. I develop a Dretske-inspired contextualism which addresses both matters. I argue that it has great strength relative to numerous epistemological problems, but lacks antiskeptical import, and suggest that it is unlikely that any contextualist view will have such import. Along the way, I defend radical skepticism against numerous objections and misconceptions.

-Peter Klein, “Contextualism and the Real Nature of Academic Skepticism,” Philosophical Issues (Noûs) 10 (2000): 108-116. [I]

-Hilary Kornblith, “The Contextualist Evasion of Epistemology, ” Philosophical Issues (Noûs), 10 (2000). [I]

PI – Keith DeRose has defended a version of contextualism according to which the claim made by the skeptic, properly understood, is both true and compatible with the claim made by the antiskeptic. I argue, first, that DeRose’s contextualism is irrelevant to epistemological concern; and second, the semantic thesis which DeRose defends does not explain the very phenomenon he seeks to explain.
-Ram Neta, “Skepticism, Contextualism, and Semantic Self-Knowledge,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 67 (2003): 396-411.

-I.T. Oakley, “A Skeptic’s Reply to Lewisian Contextualism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31 (2001): 309-332.

PI – This paper makes some general points against contextualist accounts of knowledge, but concentrates on an attempt to refute the ingenious form of contextualism put forward by David Lewis in his paper “Elusive Knowledge”. The criticism of Lewis involves both an attack on his “Rule of Attention”, which results in the skeptic’s claims being true in skeptical contexts, and on other proposed rules in his analysis which permit attribution of knowledge in everyday contexts despite the ignoring of a wide range of possibilities of error, resulting in the setting of an incorrectly low standard for what is to count as knowledge in these contexts.

-Duncan Pritchard, “Closure and Context,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 78 (2000): 275-280

PI – Three criticisms are offered regarding Mark Heller’s contextualist defense of the ‘relevant alternatives’ theory of knowledge. First, that insofar as Heller’s defense of the argument for nonclosure goes through, then he does not need to yield to the contextualist’s critique. Second, that insofar as he does concede this much to contextualism, then he jeopardizes his original defense of the argument for nonclosure (and with it his version of the relevant alternatives theory). And, third, that by endorsing a ‘hybrid’ account of knowledge which incorporates both a relevant alternatives approach and elements of contextualism, Heller is left with an epistemology theory which is even less attractive than either of these theories taken individually.

-Duncan Pritchard, “Contextualism, Scepticism, and the Problem of Epistemic Descent,” Dialectica 55 (2001): 327-349.

PI – Perhaps the most dominant antiskeptical proposal in recent literature–advanced by such figures as Stewart Cohen, Keith DeRose and David Lewis–is the contextualist response to radical skepticism. Central to the contextualist thesis is the claim that, unlike other noncontextualist antiskeptical theories, contextualism offers a dissolution of the skeptical paradox that respects our common sense epistemological intuitions. Taking Druse’s view as representative of the contextualist position, it is argued that instead of offering us an intuitive response to scepticism, contextualism is actually committed to a revisionist stance as regards our everyday usage of epistemic terms.

-James Pryor, “Highlights of Recent Epistemology,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 52 (2001): 95-124.  [I]

This article surveys work in epistemology since the mid-1980s. It focuses on (i) contextualism about knowledge attributions, (ii) modest forms of foundationalism, and (iii) the internalism/externalism debate and its connections to the ethics of belief.

-Steven Rieber, “Skepticism and Contrastive Explanation,” Noûs 32 (1998): 189 -204. [I]

PI – Most contextualist solutions to the puzzle of skepticism have the drawback of requiring special context-dependent rules for knowledge ascriptions. Since the only justification for such rules is that they solve the puzzle, these solutions are ad hoc. I develop a contextualist theory that dispenses with special rules. Knowledge, I argue, can be analyzed in terms of the concept of explanation. The analysis independently predicts that knowledge depends on context in precisely the way needed to solve the skeptical puzzle. This is because the salience of a skeptical possibility makes the explanation “contrastive”: the skeptical possibility becomes the contrast.

-Ernest Sosa, “Knowledge in Context, Skepticism in Doubt,” Philosophical Perspectives 2 (1988): 139-155. [J]

PI – THE PAPER DISCUSSES WHETHER KNOWLEDGE IS CONTEXTUAL IN A WAY RECENTLY PROPOSED, OR WHETHER THE REASONS ADDUCED FOR CONSIDERING IT TO BE CONTEXTUAL CANNOT BE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT WITH COMPARABLE OVERALL SUCCESS BY THE VIEW THAT THE CONCEPT OF KNOWLEDGE CAN VARY IN “CONTENT” FROM CONTEXT TO CONTEXT. NEXT THE PAPER TURNS TO INTELLECTUAL VIRTUE: THE CONCEPT, ITS REALIZATION IN HUMANS, AND ITS RELATION THEREBY TO COGNITIVE JUSTIFICATION AND HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. FINALLY IT CONSIDERS THE RELATIVITY OF KNOWLEDGE TO EPISTEMIC COMMUNITIES, AND OFFERS A TENTATIVE SKETCH OF AN EXPLANATION FOR SUCH RELATIVITY, WHETHER VIEWED AS CONTEXTUAL OR CONTENTUAL, IN TERMS OF A CERTAIN CONCEPTION OF INTELLECTUAL VIRTUE.

-Ernest Sosa, “Skepticism and Contextualism” (pp. 1-18) and “Replies [to Tomberlin, Kornblith, and Lehrer]” (pp. 38-41), Philosophical Issues (Noûs) 10 (2000). [I]

-Jason Stanley, “Context and Logical Form,” Linguistics and Philosophy 23 (2000): 391-434.  [I]

This paper is not primarily about knowledge attributions, but it has important implications for contextualism that are quickly discussed in the conclusion.  PI: In this paper, I defend the thesis that all effects of extralinguistic context on the truth-conditions of an assertion are traceable to elements in the actual syntactic structure of the sentence uttered. In the first section, I develop the thesis in detail, and discuss its implications for the relation between semantics and pragmatics. The next two sections are devoted to apparent counterexamples. In the second section, I argue that there are no convincing examples of true nonsentential assertions. In the third section, I argue that there are no convincing examples of what John Perry has called ‘unarticulated constituents’. I conclude by drawing some consequences of my arguments for appeals to context-dependence in the resolution of problems in epistemology and philosophical logic.

-Peter Unger, “Contextual Analysis in Ethics,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55 (1995): 1-26. [J]

Contains a good deal about contextualism in epistemology as Unger attempts to extend that approach into ethics.   PI: Already seen successful in other domains of thought and talk, a context-sensitive semantics is provided for the ethical domain. In particular, for the sentence “What you did was morally all right” roughly this indexical analysis is offered:  What you did was, in respect of the conditions for acceptability prevalent in this very context, close enough to being in complete conformity with morality. Through the likes of UNICEF, how much vital aid must you provide for your conduct to be morally acceptable? With a very lenient context, providing nothing may be close enough to complete conformity; but, when tough contexts are set, much more must be done for conduct to be “correctly assessed as” morally acceptable.

-Jonathan Vogel, “The New Relevant Alternatives Theory,” Philosophical Perspectives (Noûs) 13 (1999): 155-180. [I]

PI – I argue that the “New Relevant Alternatives Theory” (RAT)–championed by Stine, Cohen and Lewis–is untenable. On their view, when a contrary of X is a relevant alternative, you need to have evidence which rules it out in order to know X. However, when a contrary is an irrelevant alternative, you can know that the alternative doesn’t obtain without such evidence. “Ruling out” an alternative can be understood liberally or strictly. Given a liberal construal, the RAT is unmotivated; standard cases and phenomena which are supposed to support the view fail to do so. Both versions of the RAT are embarrassed by the lack of a satisfactory criterion of relevance. Finally, the strict version of the RAT is inconsistent with an adequate account of inductive knowledge.

-Michael Williams, “Contextualism, Externalism and Epistemic Standards,” Philosophical Studies 103 (2001): 1-23.  [I]

-Timothy Williamson, “Comments on Michael Williams’ Contextualism, Externalism and Epistemic Standards,” Philosophical Studies 103 (2001): 25-33.  [I]

-Palle Yourgrau, “Knowledge and Relevant Alternatives,” Synthese 55 (1983): 175-190.

PI – TRADITIONALLY, SKEPTICS AS WELL AS THEIR OPPONENTS HAVE AGREED THAT IN ORDER TO KNOW THAT “P” ONE MUST BE ABLE, BY SOME PREFERRED MEANS, TO RULE OUT ALL THE ALTERNATIVES TO “P”. RECENTLY, HOWEVER, SOME PHILOSOPHERS HAVE ATTEMPTED TO AVERT SKEPTICISM NOT (MERELY) BY WEAKENING THE PREFERRED MEANS BUT RATHER BY ARTICULATING A SUBSET OF THE ALTERNATIVES TO “P”–THE SO-CALLED RELEVANT ALTERNATIVES–AND INSISTING THAT KNOWLEDGE THAT “P” REQUIRES ONLY THAT WE BE ABLE (BY THE PREFERRED MEANS) TO RULE OUT MEMBERS OF THE SET. IN THIS PAPER I ARGUE THAT A PRECISE FORMULATION OF THIS NEW APPROACH REVEALS IT INADEQUATE AS A SOLUTION TO SKEPTICISM.


III.  Early Contextualism / Precursors to Contextualism

-J.L. Austin, “Other Minds,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplement 20 (1946): 148-187.  Reprinted in J.L. Austin, Philosophical Papers (Oxford, 1961). [K]

-Hector-Neri Casteneda, “The Theory of Questions, Epistemic Powers, and the Inexical Theory of Knowledge,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 5 (1980): 193-238.

PI – HERE IS A DETAILED EXAMINATION OF SEVERAL DIMENSIONS OF KNOWLEDGE; AN ACCOUNT OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS; A DISCUSSION OF EPISTEMIC POWERS AS POWERS TO ANSWER QUESTIONS; A DISTINCTION OF MANY SPECIES OF KNOWLEDGE, MOST OF WHICH ARE DETERMINED BY CONTEXTUAL OR INDEXICAL FACTORS; A CRITICISM OF A LARGE NUMBER OF PROPOSALS ABOUT THE ANALYSIS OF KNOWLEDGE; A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN REASONS FOR KNOWING (AND IT BEING THE CASE) AND REASONS FOR WHAT ONE SHOULD DO (AND FOR DOING). A TENTATIVE ANALYSIS OF KNOWLEDGE IS PROPOSED THAT DISTINGUISHES SPECIES IN THE LIGHT OF SEVERAL FACTORS: BELIEF, RELEVANCE, EPISTEMIC POWERS, NORMALITY OF CIRCUMSTANCES; INFERENTIAL POWERS, AND EVIDENCE.

-Fred Dretske, “Epistemic Operators,” Journal of Philosophy 67 (1970): 1007-1023. [J,S]

-Fred Dretske, “The Pragmatic Dimension of Knowledge,” Philosophical Studies 40 (1981): 363-378.

PI – KNOWLEDGE (UNLIKE BELIEF) IS AN ABSOLUTE CONCEPT; I CAN BE MORE CERTAIN OF SOMETHING THAN YOU, BUT I CAN’T KNOW IT BETTER. THIS SUGGESTS THAT KNOWLEDGE CONSISTS OF SOME OPTIMAL (PRESUMABLY, EVIDENTIAL) STATE. HOW THIS FACT IS TO BE RECONCILED WITH THE “PRAGMATIC” (RELATIVE) DIMENSION OF KNOWLEDGE IS THE TOPIC OF THIS PAPER. IT IS ARGUED THAT KNOWLEDGE IS (LIKE BEING EMPTY OR FLAT) A RELATIONALLY ABSOLUTE NOTION.

-Alvin Goldman, “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge,” Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976): 771-791. [J]

PI – THIS PAPER PROPOSES AN ANALYSIS OF NONINFERENTIAL PERCEPTUAL KNOWLEDGE. THE ANALYSIS RESTS ON THE IDEA THAT KNOWLEDGE ARISES FROM THE EXERCISE OF RELIABLE CAUSAL MECHANISMS, BY WHICH THE KNOWER DISCRIMINATES THE ACTUAL STATE OF AFFAIRS FROM RELEVANT ALTERNATIVES. FOLLOWING A DISCUSSION OF ‘RELEVANT’ ALTERNATIVES AND SKEPTICISM, I ARGUE THAT TRUE BELIEF IS DISQUALIFIED FROM BEING KNOWLEDGE WHEN THE SAME BELIEF WOULD BE FALSELY HELD IN CERTAIN RELEVANT COUNTERFACTUAL SITUATIONS. THE CLASS OF SITUATIONS IS CAREFULLY DELIMITED: THE SITUATIONS MUST BE ‘PERCEPTUAL EQUIVALENTS’ OF THE ACTUAL STATE OF AFFAIRS THAT IS PERCEPTUALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE BELIEF.

-David Lewis, “Scorekeeping in a Language Game,” Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 (1979): 339-359; esp. Example 6, “Relative Modality,” pp. 354-355.

PI – IN A PROCESS OF LINGUISTIC INTERACTION, THERE ARE ABSTRACT FEATURES OF CONTEXT WHICH EVOLVE WITH TIME IN A MORE OR LESS RULE-GOVERNED WAY. PROMINENT AMONG THE GOVERNING RULES ARE SOME TO THE EFFECT THAT THE FEATURE OF CONTEXT CHANGES WHENEVER CHANGE IS NEEDED TO AVERT SOME SORT OF INCORRECTNESS: RULES OF ACCOMMODATION. SEVERAL EXAMPLES ARE CONSIDERED: PRESUPPOSITION, PERMISSIBILITY, DEFINITE DESCRIPTIONS, COMING AND GOING, VAGUENESS, RELATIVE MODALITY, PERFORMATIVES, AND PLANNING.  KDR: This paper, on how meaning can change with context, was very influential for the development of contextualist views in epistemology.  The section on “Relative Modality” contains a quick contextualist discussion of knowledge and skepticism.

-Gail Stine, “Skepticism, Relevant Alternatives, and Deductive Closure,” Philosophical Studies 29 (1976): 249-261. [S]

PI – SOME RECENT DISCUSSIONS OF SKEPTICISM HAVE GIVEN PROMINENCE TO THE NOTION OF “RELEVANT ALTERNATIVES,” ACCORDING TO WHICH A CLAIM TO KNOW THAT P IS PROPERLY MADE IN THE CONTEXT OF A LIMITED NUMBER OF COMPETING ALTERNATIVES TO P (GENERALLY NOT INCLUDING ALL LOGICALLY POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVES TO P). SUCH VIEWS HAVE ALSO BEEN HELD TO SUPPORT REJECTION OF THE PRINCIPLE OF EPISTEMIC DEDUCTIVE CLOSURES. FURTHERMORE, THIS PRINCIPLE IS ALLEGED TO LEAD TO SKEPTICISM, AND THEREFORE REJECTION IS HELD TO BE DESIRABLE. IN THIS PAPER I PROPOSE TO DO THREE THINGS. FIRST, TO GIVE A QUALIFIED ARGUMENT FOR EPISTEMIC DEDUCTIVE CLOSURE. SECOND, TO GIVE A QUALIFIED ARGUMENT AGAINST SKEPTICISM, WHICH WILL MAKE USE OF THE RELEVANT-ALTERNATIVES IDEA. THIRD, SINCE MY FIRST TWO ARGUMENTS CONFLICT WITH THE RECENT TREND OF THOUGHT I HAVE MENTIONED, I SHALL ARGUE THAT THE QUESTIONS OF THE VALIDITY OF THE PRINCIPLE OF EPISTEMIC DEDUCTIVE CLOSURE AND SKEPTICISM ARE COMPLETELY “IRRELEVANT” TO EACH OTHER, AND THAT IN FACT PROPER ATTENTION TO THE RELEVANT-ALTERNATIVES IDEA TENDS TO CONFIRM THE PRINCIPLE.


IV.  Encyclopedia/Introductory Articles

-Tim Black, “Contextualism in Epistemology,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003 [Link]

-Bruce Brower, “Contextualism, epistemological,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Routledge, 1998), Vol. 2, pp. 646-650 [R]

-Keith DeRose, “Contextualism” (pp. 111-113) and “Relevant Alternatives” (pp. 503-504) Encyclopedia of Philosophy — Supplement (New York: Macmillan, 1996).

-Keith DeRose, “Responding to Skepticism,” in DeRose and Warfield, ed., Skepticism (Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 1-24; esp. sect. 7, “Contextualist Responses,” pp. 16-19. [Link]

-Patrick Rysiew, “Epistemic Contextualism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007 [Link]


V.  Other Contextualisms in Epistemology

-David Annis, “A Contextual Theory of Epistemic Justification,” American Philosophical Quarterly 15 (1978): 213-219.

PI – FOUNDATIONALISM AND COHERENTISM HAVE BEEN THE TWO LEADING TRADITIONAL THEORIES OF EPISTEMIC JUSTIFICATION. BUT “CONTEXTUALISM” IS AN ALTERNATIVE TO THESE THEORIES. IT DENIES THE EXISTENCE OF BASIC STATEMENTS IN THE FOUNDATIONALIST’S SENSE (ALTHOUGH IT ALLOWS CONTEXTUALLY BASIC STATEMENTS), AND IT DENIES THAT COHERENCE AS IT TRADITIONALLY HAS BEEN EXPLAINED IS SUFFICIENT FOR JUSTIFICATION. BOTH THEORIES OVERLOOK CONTEXTUAL PARAMETERS ESSENTIAL TO JUSTIFICATION SUCH AS SOCIAL INFORMATION AND SOCIAL PRACTICES AND NORMS OF JUSTIFICATION. IN THE PAPER I DEVELOP A VERSION OF A CONTEXTUALIST THEORY WHICH TAKES INTO ACCOUNT THE SOCIAL NATURE OF JUSTIFICATION.

-Keith DeRose, Review of M. Williams, Unnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Scepticism, in the Philosophical Review 102 (1993): 604-607.  [J]

-Robert Fogelin, Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, Oxford UP, 1994.

PI – This work examines twentieth century analyses of knowledge and theories of epistemic justification. Part I considers and rejects standard attempts to solve the Gettier Problem. It then shows that our ordinary concept of knowledge is unproblematic once freed of philosophical burdens improperly imposed upon it. Part II examines theories that attempt to avoid or neutralizes problems concerning an infinite regress, circularity, or arbitrary assumption — so- called theories of epistemic justification. After surveying these theories in both their foundationalist and antifoundationalist modes, the conclusion is drawn that no significant headway has been made in this area.

-Robert Fogelin, …., Symposium on Fegelin’s Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1997

-Robert Fogelin, “The Sceptic’s Burden,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 7 (1999): 159-172.

PI – The basic thesis of Michael Williams’s book “Unnatural Doubts” is that sceptical doubts, at least of a Cartesian variety, are neither natural nor intuitive, but are, instead, the product of ‘contentious and possibly dispensable theoretical preconceptions’. In particular, for Williams, scepticism arises because of a commitment to what he calls ‘epistemic realism’. A fundamental thesis of my book “Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification” is that scepticism (in its most challenging forms) is not based upon such prior theoretical commitments, but rather is the natural outcome of unrestricted exploitation of a feature already present in our everyday concept of knowledge. (edited)

-Stephen Jacobson, “Contextualism and Global Doubts about the World,” Synthese 129 (2001): 381-404.

PI – In this paper, I consider and reject the arguments Michael Williams develops in his book Unnatural Doubts that are intended to show that the skeptic’s interpretation of the significance of global doubts is mistaken. In addition, I argue that Williams’s general strategy in opposing the skeptic is extremely interesting and worth further investigation, even if his particular execution of it is unsuccessful. To this end, I clarify the general strategy, distinguish it from a variety of others, and discuss its prospects as an answer to the skeptic.

-Jonathan Vogel, “Skepticism and Foundationalism: A Reply to Michael Williams,” Journal of Philosophical Research 22 (1997): 11-28

PI – Michael Williams maintains that skepticism about the external world is vitiated by a commitment to “foundationalism” and “epistemological realism”. (The latter is, approximately, the view that there is such a thing as knowledge of the external world in general, which the skeptic can take as a target). I argue that skepticism is not encumbered in the ways Williams supposes. I find that Williams has offered no principled way to distinguish between ordinary challenges to knowledge and skeptical challenges which, supposedly, have no claim on our concern.

-Michael Williams, “Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Scepticism,” Mind 97 (1988): 415-439. [J]

-Michael Williams, Unnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Scepticism, Blackwell, 1991.

-Michael Williams, “Still Unnatural: A Reply to Vogel and Rorty,” Journal of Philosophical Research 22 (1997): 29-39.

PI – Professor Vogel claims that my responses to scepticism leave the traditional problems standing. I argue in reply that he fails to take sufficiently seriously the diagnostic character of my enterprise. My aim is not to offer direct refutations of sceptical arguments, taking such arguments at face value, but to undermine their plausibility by revealing their dependence on unacknowledged and contentious theoretical presuppositions.(edited)

-Michael Williams, “Fogelin’s Neo-Pyrrhonism,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 7 (1999): 141-158.

PI – I argue that Fogelin’s conception of varying levels of scrutiny leads at most to fallibilism and not to radical scepticism. More importantly, I show that changing the range of relevant defeaters to a given knowledge claim can do more that impose stricter standards for justification: it can change the subject by altering the direction of inquiry. We see from this that the introduction of ‘sceptical hypotheses’ (such as that Descartes’s Evil Deceiver) are not best seen as raising standards to some maximal level but as introducing a new kind of evaluation which, without commitment to what I call ‘epistemological realism,’ does nothing to impugn the justificational status of ordinary knowledge-claims entered in ordinary contexts. (edited)


A few of the above papers are available on-line to anyone; I provided a “Link” to them.  Papers marked “I”, “J”, or “R” are available on-line at the below subscriber web sites.  In those cases, only subscribers can access them.  However, many who get their internet service through their college or university will find that their school does subscribe.   Try the below links.  Recent papers in the annuals Philosophical Issues and Philosophical Perspectives will be found under Noûs, since those annuals are now supplements to the journal Noûs.

I:   Ingenta.
J:  JSTOR.
R: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Where noted, papers are available in the below anthologies (* indicates that only part of the work is reprinted in the anthology).  The below links will take you to the publisher’s web page for the anthology.

E: Sosa, Kim, ed. Epistemology: An Anthology, Blackwell, 2000.
K: Bernecker, Dretske, ed., Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology, Oxford UP, 2000.
S: DeRose, Warfield, ed., Skepticism: A Contemporary Reader, Oxford UP, 1999.

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