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Contextualism and skepticism about the external world

Tim Black, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Contextualist responses to skepticism about the external world are inadequate, and we should prefer an invariantist response to skepticism. There are two kinds of contextualism—anti-theoretical and theoretical. Anti-theoretical contextualists argue that the principles on which skepticism depends are absent from our ordinary epistemic ways of thinking. So anti-theoretical contextualists conclude that the burden of proof is on the skeptic. But some argue that the principles on which skepticism depends are not absent from our ordinary ways of thinking. The existence of this unresolved dispute suggests that anti-theoretical contextualists have not shifted the burden of proof to the skeptic. Anti-theoretical contextualists also fail to refute skepticism outright. Their primary argument here is one in which the notion of certainty plays a key role. But their argument is unsound on all significant uses of the word ‘certain.’ Thus, anti-theoretical contextualists have neither refuted skepticism nor shifted the burden of proof to the skeptic. ^ Theoretical contextualism claims that the solution to skeptical puzzles lies in the fact that the standards for knowledge shift from context to context. Yet if theoretical contextualist solutions are to be adequate, they must explain how those standards shift. Unfortunately, theoretical contextualism fails to provide this explanation. This explanatory failure, along with the problems that face individual theoretical contextualist accounts, shows that theoretical contextualist responses to skepticism are inadequate. ^ Even though contextualism fails, a Moorean invariantism—according to which the standards for knowledge are always low—allows us to know across contexts the things we ordinarily take ourselves to know. We should prefer this Moorean invariantism over contextualism. It stands on the same theoretical ground as the dominant contextualisms while still allowing us to explain how we know that certain skeptical hypotheses are false. Also, contextualism raises questions—for example, questions concerning how the standards for knowledge shift—that receive only inadequate answers. The Moorean invariantist account does not raise such questions. All of this suggests that the Moorean invariantist response to skepticism is better than any of its contextualist counterparts. ^

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Recommended Citation

Black, Tim, "Contextualism and skepticism about the external world" (2001). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3009713.