A forum for VE lucubration

Sunday, November 12, 2006

VE and contextualism

I've been wondering whether a virtue-epistemologist can be a contextualist. Greco thinks so, and gives a case for this. His view, though, falls within the "virtue reliabilist" camp; I wonder what the prospects would be for a virtue responsibilist (specifically) to embrace contextualist semantics for "know." In his Stanford Encyclopedia entry on VE, Greco suggests that a virtue responsibilist account (namely, Zagzebski's) might be amenable to contextualist semantics by supposing that the "because" in her definition (i.e. the agent has to reach the end of the intellectually virtuous motive "because" of features of the act of virtue) could be understood as requiring stronger conditions in different contexts.

I'm not sure what to make of this claim; does anyone know of particularly good articles (aside from Greco's entry in 'Knowledge, Belief and Character) that shine light on the prospects of a virtue-responsibilist account being amenable to contextualist semantics?


Blogger John Greco said...


I am currently involved in a discussion over at Joe Salerno's Knowability blog. The discussion is about agent reliabilism and contextualism, but I don't see why it can't be carried over to include responsibilist accounts as well. This is because the two main considerations in favor of a contextualist semantics (varying standards and varying causal responsibility attributions)could be incorporated into a responsibilist account.

5:06 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

To fit the bill of responsibilist approaches compatible with a kind of contextualism, I'd suggest my "Two for the Show" and "Virtue Theoretic Responses to Skepticism." But it all depends on how your understand "contextualism," and I'm afraid my contextualism is of quite different stripes than what you understand by it. Let me explain.

First, Duncan Pritchard is quite right, that my "responsibilist externalism" is one on which "the details of the analysis need to be spelt out within specific contexts, rather than regarding them as fixed in advance." (reference at end) He then suggests that if I have a robust sense of context sensitivity, it would "have the implausible result of wedding virtue epistemology to a further, and rather contentious epistemological thesis...this is not a happy result for Axtell's critique."

So in thinking about this I'd say Duncan's view that there is an implicit "contextualism" in my expressed views is right, though it is NOT the truth-variant view we normally associate with that term. I actually agree with Duncan, John, Linda and others in rejecting truth-variant contextualism, and if there is a contextualism in my view then its OWN flaws need to be pointed out: it won't be criticizable merely in guilt-by-association. If contextualism is just the thesis of the truth of knowledge attributions varying over "ordinary" and "skeptical" contexts, I reject that and am "non-contextualist".

But here's why the term, broadly construed, may still fit my responsibilist account. John says two things are basic to "contextualist semantics": a) varying standards and b) varying causal responsibility attributions. Both seem entirely basic to responsibilist thought as well, since responsibilists insist upon the very plausible distinction between brute externalist and reflective knowledge, allowing the 'because of' or 'due to' virtue condition to be understood 'thinly' in analysis of knowledge, such that the standards for what fills it will depend upon the particular case at hand.

But the "contexts" to which knowledge attributions are sensitive on my account aren't 'externalist' and 'reflective' contexts, as might be thought. That's part of it to be sure, and a reason why my responsibilist externalism accepts both "faculty virtues" and "reflective virtues" (whereas Zagzebskian neo-Aristotelians profess a thickened conception on which only reflective virtues are real virtues. In this way Zagzebski undermines her own useful ideal of virtue as a "flexible" concept that can be 'bent' in several directions, something that Duncan still refuses to see that responsibilists like Heather, Jason and myself have sternly criticized her over).

I agree with you that explanatory salience is at least partly a matter of context. And as Trent says, "credit-worthiness" is a "functional property"--one that is "multiply realizable." The term is flexible enough to say that brute knowing is creditable in one way, reflective knowing demanding a higher grade of creditability.

So to be sure, differing requirements for brute externalist and reflective knowledge are something I accept, and something compatible with 'credit theories of knowing." I reject outright the paradoxical demand for univocal a set of sufficient conditions on knowledge that work everywhere along the high/low "spectrum" of knowledge (the 'paradox of general sufficiency' as I term it). But though it would take further posts to explain what my papers argue, my contexts are really rather these: Default context and Motivated Challenge context. The semantic standards for ‘knows’ vary from context to context, I'd allow, but this is not a contrast of an "everyday" and a "skeptical" context, but rather of TWO PHILOSOPHICAL CONTEXTS: The demands of explanation are satisfied in the Default mode by virtuous origins in a thin, undelineated sense; but in the second context, where a motivated challenge has arisen to the creditability of a particular agent for the truth of her belief, the demands of explanation to defend an attribution of knowing to her are such that they call for "thick" description of the salient dispositions through which her belief are acquired or maintained.

[Pritchard's draft of "VE and Luck, Revisted" for APA PACIFIC 2007: http://www.philosophy.stir.ac.uk/postgraduate/documents/VEAndLuckRevisited2.p

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