At the center of the debate between contextualist versus relativist semantics for epistemic modal claims is an empirical question about when competent subjects judge epistemic modal disagreement to be present. John MacFarlane’s relativist claims that we judge there to be epistemic modal disagreement across the widest range of cases. We wish to dispute the robustness of his data with the results of two studies. Our primary conclusion is that the actual disagreement data is not consistent with relativist predictions, and so, that the primary motivation for relativism disappears. Our study differs from a related study by Knobe and Yalcin (Semant Pragmat 7(10):1–21, 2014) in that we focus directly on the question of genuine disagreement, as opposed to a question about truth or the appropriateness of retraction. Some of our findings agree with theirs about relativism. We uncover new lessons along the way, including that there are widespread situation effects of epistemic modal discourse; idiosyncratic features of the vignettes significantly influencing judgments about epistemic modal disagreement. We reflect with mixed feelings on the prospects for contextualism to accommodate our findings.
KeywordsEpistemic modals Epistemic possibility Contextualism Relativism
Research for this paper was supported by the Institut Jean Nicod. We are grateful to Emmanuel Chemla for designing and assisting us with his MTurk interface, which processed our MTurk data. Versions of the material here were presented at CPR workshop at the Institut Jean Nicod, Paris France, 2011; the Epistemology Reading Group as Saint Louis University, 2015; and the Buffalo Annual Experimental Philosophy Conference, 2015. We are grateful to those who contributed questions and suggestions at those venues. Thanks also to anonymous referees for their helpful reports, and to the editors of this volume for their assistance.
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