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Contextualism describes a collection of views in philosophy which emphasize the context in which an action, utterance, or expression occurs, and argues that, in some important respect, the action, utterance, or expression can only be understood relative to that context. [1] Contextualist views hold that philosophically controversial concepts, such as "meaning P", "knowing that P", "having a reason to A", and possibly even "being true" or "being right" only have meaning relative to a specified context. Some philosophers [2] hold that context-dependence may lead to relativism; [3] nevertheless, contextualist views are increasingly popular within philosophy. [1]

Philosophy intellectual and/or logical study of general and fundamental problems

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

Utterance smallest unit of speech

In spoken language analysis, an utterance is the smallest unit of speech. It is a continuous piece of speech beginning and ending with a clear pause. In the case of oral languages, it is generally but not always bounded by silence. Utterances do not exist in written language, only their representations do. They can be represented and delineated in written language in many ways.

Relativism is the idea that views are relative to differences in perception and consideration. There is no universal, objective truth according to relativism; rather each point of view has its own truth.


In ethics, "contextualist" views are often closely associated with situational ethics, or with moral relativism. [4]

Ethics branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology.

Situational ethics or situation ethics takes into account the particular context of an act when evaluating it ethically, rather than judging it according to absolute moral standards. With the intent to have a fair basis for judgments or action, one looks to personal ideals of what is appropriate to guide them, rather than an unchanging universal code of conduct, such as Biblical law under divine command theory or the Kantian categorical imperative. Proponents of situational approaches to ethics include existentialist philosophers Sartre, de Beauvoir, Jaspers, and Heidegger.

Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures. Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral; meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

Contextualism in architecture is a theory of design wherein modern (not be confused with modernism) building types are harmonized with urban forms usual to a traditional city. [5]

Contextual architecture Type of architecture

Contextual architecture, also known as Contextualism is a philosophical approach in architectural theory that refers to the designing of a structure in response to the literal and abstract characteristics of the environment in which it is built. Contextual architecture contrasts modernism which value the imposition of their own characteristics and values upon the built environment.



In epistemology, contextualism is the treatment of the word 'knows' as context-sensitive. Context-sensitive expressions are ones that "express different propositions relative to different contexts of use". [6] For example, some terms that are relatively uncontroversially considered context-sensitive are indexicals, such as 'I', 'here', and 'now'. While the word 'I' has a constant linguistic meaning in all contexts of use, whom it refers to varies with context. Similarly, epistemic contextualists argue that the word 'knows' is context sensitive, expressing different relations in some different contexts.

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

In formal language theory, a context-sensitive language is a language that can be defined by a context-sensitive grammar. Context-sensitive is one of the four types of grammars in the Chomsky hierarchy.

Contextualism was introduced, in part, in order to undermine skeptical arguments that have this basic structure:

  1. I don't know that I am not in a skeptical scenario H (e.g., I'm not a brain in a vat)
  2. If I don't know that H is not the case, then I don't know an ordinary proposition O (e.g., I have hands)
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, I don't know O

Contextualist solution is not to deny any premise, nor to say that the argument does not follow, but link the truth value of (3) to the context, and say that we can refuse (3) in context—like everyday conversational context—where we have different requirements to say we know.

The main tenet of contextualist epistemology, no matter what account of knowledge it is wedded to, is that knowledge attributions are context-sensitive. Then the truth values of out term "know" depend on the context in which it is used . We can realize that in the context in which the standards to claim truthfully knowledge are so high—e. e., in skeptical context—if we said something like 'I know that I have hands' then this statement would be false. Nevertheless, if we utter the same proposition in an ordinary context—e.g., in a cafe with friends--, where lower standards are in place , the statement would be truth, even more, it's negation would be false. So, only when we participate in philosophical discourses of the skeptical sort, do we seem to lose our knowledge. However, once we leave the skeptical context, we can truthfully say we have knowledge.

That is, when we attribute knowledge to someone, the context in which we use the term 'knowledge' determines the standards relative to which "knowledge" is being attributed (or denied). If we use it in everyday conversational contexts, the contextualist maintains, most of our claims to "know" things are true, despite skeptic's attempts to show we know little or nothing. But if the term 'knowledge' is used when skeptical hypotheses are being discussed, we count as "knowing" very little, if anything. Contextualists use this to explain why skeptical arguments can be persuasive, while at the same time protecting the correctness of our ordinary claims to "know" things. It is important to note that this theory does not allow that someone can have knowledge at one moment and not the other, for this would hardly be a satisfying epistemological answer. What contextualism entails is that in one context an utterance of a knowledge attribution can be true, and in a context with higher standards for knowledge, the same statement can be false. This happens in the same way that 'I' can correctly be used (by different people) to refer to different people at the same time.

What varies with context is how well-positioned a subject must be with respect to a proposition to count as "knowing" it. Contextualism in epistemology then is a semantic thesis about how 'knows' works in English, not a theory of what knowledge, justification, or strength of epistemic position consists in. [7] However, epistemologists combine contextualism with views about what knowledge is to address epistemological puzzles and issues, such as skepticism, the Gettier problem, and the Lottery paradox.

Skepticism or scepticism is generally any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief. It is often directed at domains, such as the supernatural, morality, religion, or knowledge. Formally, skepticism as a topic occurs in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it can be applied to any topic such as politics, religion, and pseudoscience.

The Gettier problem, in the field of epistemology, is a landmark philosophical problem concerning our understanding of descriptive knowledge. Attributed to American philosopher Edmund Gettier, Gettier-type counterexamples challenge the long-held justified true belief (JTB) account of knowledge. The JTB account holds that knowledge is equivalent to justified true belief; if all three conditions are met of a given claim, then we have knowledge of that claim. In his 1963 three-page paper titled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?", Gettier attempts to illustrate by means of two counterexamples that there are cases where individuals can have a justified, true belief regarding a claim but still fail to know it because the reasons for the belief, while justified, turn out to be false. Thus, Gettier claims to have shown that the JTB account is inadequate; that it does not account for all of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge.

Henry E. Kyburg, Jr.'s lottery paradox arises from considering a fair 1000-ticket lottery that has exactly one winning ticket. If this much is known about the execution of the lottery it is therefore rational to accept that some ticket will win. Suppose that an event is very likely only if the probability of it occurring is greater than 0.99. On these grounds it is presumed rational to accept the proposition that ticket 1 of the lottery will not win. Since the lottery is fair, it is rational to accept that ticket 2 will not win either—indeed, it is rational to accept for any individual ticket i of the lottery that ticket i will not win. However, accepting that ticket 1 will not win, accepting that ticket 2 will not win, and so on until accepting that ticket 1000 will not win entails that it is rational to accept that no ticket will win, which entails that it is rational to accept the contradictory proposition that one ticket wins and no ticket wins.

Contextualist accounts of knowledge became increasingly popular toward the end of the 20th century, particularly as responses to the problem of skepticism. Contemporary contextualists include Michael Blome-Tillmann, Michael Williams, Stewart Cohen, Keith DeRose, David Lewis, Gail Stine, and George Mattey.

Michael Williams is a British philosopher who is currently Kreiger-Eisenhower Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, noted especially for his work in epistemology.

Keith DeRose is an American philosopher teaching at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he is currently Allison Foundation Professor of Philosophy. He taught previously at New York University and Rice University. His primary interests include epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, and history of modern philosophy. He is best known for his work on contextualism in epistemology, especially as a response to the traditional problem of skepticism.

David Lewis (philosopher) American philosopher

David Kellogg Lewis was an American philosopher. Lewis taught briefly at UCLA and then at Princeton from 1970 until his death. He is also closely associated with Australia, whose philosophical community he visited almost annually for more than thirty years. He made contributions in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of probability, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical logic, and aesthetics. He is probably best known for his controversial modal realist stance: that (i) possible worlds exist, (ii) every possible world is a concrete entity, (iii) any possible world is causally and spatiotemporally isolated from any other possible world, and (iv) our world is among the possible worlds.

Thus, the standards for attributing knowledge to someone, the contexualist claims, vary from one user's context to the next. Thus, if I say "John knows that his car is in front of him", the utterance is true if and only if (1) John believes that his car is in front of him, (2) the car is in fact in front of him, and (3) John meets the epistemic standards that my (the speaker's) context selects. This is a loose contextualist account of knowledge, and there are many significantly different theories of knowledge that can fit this contextualist template and thereby come in a contextualist form.

For instance, an evidentialist account of knowledge can be an instance of contextualism if it's held that strength of justification is a contextually varying matter. And one who accepts a relevant alternative's account of knowledge can be a contextualist by holding that what range of alternatives are relevant is sensitive to conversational context. DeRose adopts a type of modal or "safety" (as it has since come to be known) account on which knowledge is a matter of one's belief as to whether or not p is the case matching the fact of the matter, not only in the actual world, but also in the sufficiently close possible worlds: Knowledge amounts to there being no "nearby" worlds in which one goes wrong with respect to p. But how close is sufficiently close? It's here that DeRose takes the modal account of knowledge in a contextualist direction, for the range of "epistemically relevant worlds" is what varies with context: In high standards contexts one's belief must match the fact of the matter through a much wider range of worlds than is relevant to low standards contexts.


It is claimed that neurophilosophy has the goal of contextualizing. "We must contextualize questions usually dealt with in the physical and epistemological domains into the context of the empirical domain, the domain of observation in third-person perspective." "Rather than approaching the metaphysical and epistemological issues [about the nature and features of brain and mind] from a mind-based (as in traditional philosophy) or brain-reductive (as in neuroscience) perspective, we therefore pursue a brain-based strategy and thus a non-reductive neurophilosophy." "The various arguments against the material or lphysicalistic view of consciousness...are directly compared with the empirical data and are thus put into the empirical, that is, neuroscientific context of consciousness." [8]


However, contextualist epistemology has been criticized by several philosophers. Contextualism is opposed to any general form of Invariantism , which claims that knowledge is not context-sensitive (i.e. it is invariant). More recent criticism has been in the form of rival theories, including Subject-Sensitive Invariantism (SSI), mainly due to the work of John Hawthorne (2004), and Interest-Relative Invariantism (IRI), due to Jason Stanley (2005). SSI claims that it is the context of the subject of the knowledge attribution that determines the epistemic standards, whereas Contextualism maintains it is the attributor. IRI, on the other hand, argues that it is the context of the practical interests of the subject of the knowledge attribution that determines the epistemic standards. Stanley writes that bare IRI is "simply the claim that whether or not someone knows that p may be determined in part by practical facts about the subject's environment." [9] ("Contextualism" is a misnomer for either form of Invariantism, since "Contextualism" among epistemologists is considered to be restricted to a claim about the context-sensitivity of knowledge attributions (or the word "knows"). Thus, any view which maintains that something other than knowledge attributions are context-sensitive is not, strictly speaking, a form of Contextualism.) DeRose (2009) responds to recent attacks on contextualism, and argues that contextualism is superior to these recent rivals.

An alternative to contextualism called contrastivism has been proposed by Jonathan Schaffer. Contrastivism, like contextualism, uses semantic approaches to tackle the problem of skepticism. [10]

Experimental research

Recent work in the new field of experimental philosophy has taken an empirical approach to testing the claims of contextualism and related views. This research has proceeded by conducting experiments in which ordinary non-philosophers are presented with vignettes which involve a knowledge ascription. Participants are then asked to report on the status of that knowledge ascription. The studies address contextualism by varying the context of the knowledge ascription, e.g., how important it is that the agent in the vignette has accurate knowledge.

In the studies completed up to this point, no support for contextualism has been found. [11] This critique of contextualism can be summed up as: stakes have no impact on evidence. More specifically, non-philosophical intuitions about knowledge attributions are not affected by the importance to the potential knower of the accuracy of that knowledge. Some may argue that these empirical studies for the most part have not been well designed for testing contextualism, which claims that the context of the attributor of "knowledge" affects the epistemic standards that govern their claims. Because most of the empirical studies don't vary the stakes for the attributor, but for the subject being described, these studies are more relevant to the evaluation of John Hawthorne's "Subject-Sensitive Invariantism" or Jason Stanley's "Interest-Relative Invariantism"—views on which the stakes for the putative subject of knowledge can affect whether that subject knows—than they are of contextualism. However, Feltz & Zarpentine (forthcoming) have tested the stakes for both the subject and the attributor, and the results are not in keeping with contextualism. Experimental work continues to be done on this topic. [12]

See also


  1. 1 2 Price (2008).
  2. Feldman (1999).
  3. Mackie (1977)
  4. Timmons (1998).
  5. Jencks, p. 78-79
  6. Stanley (2005), p. 16.
  7. Stanley (2005), p. 17.
  8. Northoff, Georg (2014) p. 351
  9. Stanley (2005), p. 85.
  10. Schaffer (2004).
  11. See Feltz and Zarpentine (2010), May, Sinnott-Armstrong, Hull, and Zimmerman (2010), and Buckwatler (2010).
  12. See, for example, Schaffer and Knobe (2011).

References and further reading

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Philosophical skepticism is a philosophical school of thought that questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge. Skeptic philosophers from different historical periods adopted different principles and arguments, but their ideology can be generalized as either (1) the denial of possibility of all knowledge or (2) the suspension of judgement due to the inadequacy of evidence.

Virtue epistemology is a contemporary philosophical approach to epistemology that stresses the importance of intellectual, and specifically epistemic virtues. A distinguishing factor of virtue theories is that they use for the evaluation of knowledge the properties of the persons who hold beliefs in addition to or instead of the properties of propositions and beliefs. Some advocates of virtue epistemology claim to more closely follow theories of virtue ethics, while others see only a looser analogy between virtue in ethics and virtue in epistemology.

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Broadly speaking, fallibilism is the philosophical claim that no belief can have justification which guarantees the truth of the belief. However, not all fallibilists believe that fallibilism extends to all domains of knowledge.

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