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Knowledge and cancelability

Abstract

Keith DeRose and Stewart Cohen object to the fallibilist strand of pragmatic invariantism regarding knowledge ascriptions that it is committed to non-cancelable pragmatic implications. I show that this objection points us to an asymmetry about which aspects of the conveyed content of knowledge ascriptions can be canceled: we can cancel those aspects that ascribe a lesser epistemic standing to the subject but not those that ascribe a better or perfect epistemic standing. This situation supports the infallibilist strand of pragmatic invariantism according to which knowledge semantically requires absolute certainty but this claim is often pragmatically weakened: it turns out that exactly those aspects of the conveyed content are cancelable that this view claims are pragmatic. I also argue that attributor contextualism and relativism do not have an alternative explanation of this phenomenon.

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Notes

  1. FPI is often referred to as “moderate pragmatic invariantism” (and Pynn (2015) calls it “pragmatic contextualism”) whereas IPI is often called “skeptical pragmatic invariantism” or “strict pragmatic invariantism”. I use this terminology because I do not believe that IPI is committed to a serious version of skepticism.

  2. More recently, Mikkel Gerken (2017) and Alexander Dinges (2018) have also at least partly appealed to biases that leads us to overrate the probability or relevance of skeptical scenarios.

  3. Brown (2006, p. 428) denies that the supposed pragmatic implications are not cancelable. She argues that it is felicitous to say “S knows that p, but her belief wouldn’t match the facts in a really distant possible world.” This seems right, but I would respond that once we make explicit that we mean an epistemically possible world and explain what this means we involve ourselves in the same apparent contradiction as above (although the utterance may still be felicitous). On the other hand, if we do not explain what we mean, we will actually fail to cancel the pragmatic implication in question. I should also flag that I think this talk of “distance” of possible worlds is problematic, especially as skeptical scenarios resemble the actual world as far as our experience is concerned.

  4. CKA1 is originally from Hawthorne (2004, p. 21, fn. 60) and is credited to Tamar Gendler and Brian Weatherson there. CKA2 was suggested by an anonymous reviewer.

  5. One feature of most generalized conversational implicatures is that we can cancel them in an attempt to appear witty. For example, we can say humorously: “Jones has three children. In fact, she even has four of them.” This does not seem to be the case with the implicatures discussed here. The reason for this appears to be related to the fact that the pragmatic effects in question represent a weakening of the semantic meaning (whereas in the children example, the semantic meaning is strengthened, so that the original statement implicated that Jones has exactly three children). Given we are dealing with weakening, we cannot “fool” the listener into thinking something that we did not actually semantically entail. An apt comparison to the implicatures we are dealing with are domain restrictions. For example, we can say: “Smith always brushes his teeth. And by this I mean that he brushes his teeth all day and night.” This may be funny, but only in the same way that it is funny to say “I know that the Queen is British. And by this I mean that I can rule out that my brain is being manipulated by aliens to think that the Queen is British.” (Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this point).

  6. There are uncontroversial cases of pragmatic strengthening of knowledge ascriptions that do not apply to the subject’s epistemic standing. For example, if I am asked whether I locked my door I could reply “I know that there is a lot of crime in my neighborhood”, giving rise to a conversational implicature that I did indeed lock my door.

  7. DeRose (2004) suggests that such cases may lead to “gappy” semantics: contextualists may say that semantic evaluation of knowledge ascriptions depends on an agreed-upon “scoreboard”, so if two speakers fail to agree on such a scoreboard their utterances will not be assigned a truth value. But this position has serious drawbacks as well. First, we need to accept that there can easily be situations which defy semantic evaluation because of speaker disagreement. Second, the parent in this example will likely not be persuaded that neither of them is right, so we still lack an explanation of our intuitions about knowledge ascriptions and their truth.

  8. It is worth mentioning that IPI can give an unproblematic account of these examples precisely because it treats the contextual variations as pragmatic. According to IPI, the father’s assertion was semantically false even before the son raised an error possibility, and this semantic evaluation does not change. However, the statement’s pragmatic meaning was true because in the original context remote possibilities were irrelevant to its evaluation. IPI is able to use a modified rule of attention to explain how the raising of error possibilities can sometimes lead to a change in the pragmatic meaning of knowledge ascriptions. However, it has no problem saying that it depends on further features of the context whether this move is successful – and that the son’s reply is a case where the pragmatic meaning does not change. That is because this pragmatic rule of (warranted) attention is not part of IPI’s account of the asymmetry regarding cancelability.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Michael Williams, Richard Bett, Justin Bledin and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments and suggestions on the ideas in this paper. I would also like the audiences at the Tübingen Masterclass with Jonathan Schaffer, at the European Congress for Analytic Philosophy 8 in Munich, and at the Hammond Society Colloquium at Johns Hopkins.

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Correspondence to Tammo Lossau.

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Lossau, T. Knowledge and cancelability. Synthese 199, 397–405 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02663-7

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Keywords

  • Knowledge ascriptions
  • Pragmatic invariantism
  • Cancelability test