What’s Wrong with Contextualism, and a Noncontextualist Resolution of the Skeptical Paradox

  • Mylan EngelJr.


Skeptics try to persuade us of our ignorance with arguments like the following: 1. I don’t know that I am not a handless brain-in-a-vat [BIV]. 2. If I don’t know that I am not a handless BIV, then I don’t know that I have hands. Therefore, 3. I don’t know that I have hands. The BIV argument is valid, its premises are intuitively compelling, and yet, its conclusion strikes us as absurd. Something has to go, but what? Contextualists contend that an adequate solution to the skeptical problem must: (i) retain epistemic closure, (ii) explain the intuitive force of skeptical arguments by explaining why their premises initially seem so compelling, and (iii) account for the truth of our commonsense judgment that we do possess lots of ordinary knowledge. Contextualists maintain that the key to such a solution is recognizing that the semantic standards for ‘knows’ vary from context to context such that in skeptical contexts the skeptic’s premises are true and so is her conclusion; but in ordinary contexts, her conclusion is false and so is her first premise. Despite its initial attractiveness, the contextualist solution comes at a significant cost, for contextualism has many counterintuitive results. After presenting the contextualist solution, I identify a number of these costs. I then offer a noncontextualist solution that meets the adequacy constraint identified above, while avoiding the costs associated with contextualism. Hence, one of the principal reasons offered for adopting a contextualist theory of knowledge — its supposedly unique ability to adequately resolve the skeptical problem — is undermined.

The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? ...;

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon. I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour’s amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther (Hume, 1739, p. 268f).

There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning, that it may silence, without convincing an antagonist, … When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning (Hume, 1739, p. 455).

David Hume


Semantic Contextualism Epistemic Possibility Skeptical Argument Closure Principle Epistemic Contextualism 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mylan EngelJr.
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyNorthern Illinois UniversityDe KalbUSA

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