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Relativism - Contextualism And Relativism In Epistemology

standards belief standard knowledge

By far the most discussed form of relativism is ethical relativism. However, relativist issues arise quite frequently in almost every area of philosophical research. One of the most significant trends in late-twentieth-century epistemology has been the rise of views that are broadly either relativist or pluralist and are loosely collected under the banner "contextualism." Contextualists hold that the truth of sentences attributing knowledge, such as "S knows that p," like the truth of sentences attributing tallness, such as "S is tall," depends on the contexts of their use. In particular, the speaker's context determines which standards of epistemic justification are in play. Hence, A's statement "Stella knows that Stanley loves her" may be true, while B's seemingly contradictory statement "Nobody ever knows anything at all" might also be true, since their contexts of utterance might invoke quite different standards of justification. A's may be a conversational context; perhaps Stella has told A about Stanley's having confessed his feelings to her, A knows that Stella is a good judge of dissembling, and so on, so A can rule out the possibility that she is ignorant. In A's context, that possibility is not salient. B, on the other hand, has been studying Descartes and in that context the possibility that everyone is being tricked by an all-powerful evil demon is very salient. In A's context, the demon hypothesis is out of place. That "Stella knows" is true relative to one context of A's statement that she does, but not relative to B's context.

In effect, contextualism amounts to a kind of speaker relativism, in which the standards in play are determined by the person making knowledge claims. Standards are relative to contexts, and the context is set by the speaker. A certain standard is appropriate for each context. A speaker then "picks out" the relevant standard when making knowledge claims that then determine the truth conditions of the claim. However, it may be better to classify contextualism as a kind of pluralism, because any contextualist will hold that there are standards of justification no lower than which can be gone in any circumstance. For instance, there are no contexts in which simply having a belief that something is so counts as knowledge. Thus a range of standards exists, each appropriate for some context, but all are subject to a certain baseline minimum of justification.

It also seems as if contextualism could be regarded as a parametric universalist view. For instance, evidentialism is the view that S knows p only when S's belief fits the evidence. When someone says that S knows that p, the evidentialist who is a contextualist will say that this will be true only when, according to the speaker's context, there is enough evidence and the belief fits it well enough. What varies here, then, is not the standard of justification; the standard is that a justified belief must fit the evidence. It is the degree of fit that varies according to context, and that is not a matter of standards varying.

Steven Stich, however, defends an unambiguously relativist view of knowledge. In his view, it doesn't make sense to think that there are standards of rational belief formation independent of those that happen to be accepted in a given place and time. Standards of rationality in belief formation vary from locality to locality. And this, it seems, is grounds for holding there is no universal standard. But someone knows something only if her beliefs about it are rationally held—formed for good reasons. Since the standards vary, knowledge varies with it. Hence, according to the prevailing standards of rationality in one locality, a belief may be held for good reasons, while in another those selfsame reasons may not be good enough.

Stich's statement of epistemological relativism appears to conform to Harman's original model. In particular, it conforms to Harman's view that "there is no sense attached to" judging dimly the practices of someone who conforms to standards other than our own. Because of this, it also inherits the difficulty of explaining why that kind of judgment seems to make sense. There is no apparent confusion about what someone is saying when she says that those people over there have no reason to believe what they believe, even though they think they do. We may think it morally inappropriate to make such judgments, but it is not nonsensical. Indeed, we may even think our condemnation to be epistemically rash. But just as in the case of ethical relativism, if we do think it epistemically rash to condemn the epistemic practices of others, it must be based on some standard of rationality. If it is based on our own standards, however, it is not clear how we can maintain confidence in those standards when forming beliefs on their basis. If it is not based on our own standards, then we must be invoking some nonrelative standards. It seems that relativism in epistemology faces the same dilemma that ethical relativism faces.

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