Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stewart Cohen on Epistemic Contextualism part 2 (Clarification and Expansion)

Okay, so in the first blog I was trying to lay out some of the ground work, but I feel that I need to clarify what is being said a little bit more. Let me say that when I first read this article, it took me a little time and reflection to notice that the issue here that Cohen is talking about is NOT about the truth of a given conclusion we believe. Rather, Cohen is talking about our justification in believing some conclusion given some reason. To use an example Cohen gives, if I believe q (the table is red) on the basis of r (the table looks red), then I am justified only if I don’t possess a defeater d (e.g. some reliable source tells me that there are red lights shining on the table). Now this is what Cohen calls the ideal case, when everything is at an optimum, then when confronted with d a subject S will not believe q on the basis of r. Now, from what I understand, Cohen is taking for granted that q is true. It is in fact the case that the table is red. Nevertheless, the fact that the table looks red to me is not a good reason to conclude the table is red because the defeater (a reliable source says that there are red lights shining on the table) undermines the reasonableness of drawing the true conclusion on the basis that the table looks red. If one would draw the conclusion that the table is red on the basis of the table looking red in the light of this obvious defeater, then one would have a true belief about the table looking red, but one would lack a justified true belief about the table, and thus without this justification (the having of good reasons) one would not possess knowledge.  
Let me quickly try to wrap up Cohen’s position (more or less) so that in my last post on this topic I can give some of my personal misgivings about this position. Cohen has made a distinction between ideally good reasons and permissibly good reasons. Cohen has pointed out in his article that though some reasons might be intersubjectively good reasons (with no evident defeaters, let’s say), but it might not be subjectively good reason to some like a super genius. That is, the reason is not ideally good, and that because all parties involved possess a defeater with in their knowledge, but it is just that only the few super geniuses can sort of piece the puzzle together, while the rest of the intersubjective community can’t. This means that some true conclusion is not ideally reached by the intersubjective community’s reason, because they possess but don’t catch the defeater that they have in their knowledge (though the super genius does). Nevertheless, the intersubjective community is in fact justified in believing the true conclusion on their reason. That is, the reason is not ideally good but is permissibly good. Cohen writes, “Why does S know when he possesses an intersubjectively opaque defeater, but fail to know when he possesses an intersubjectively evident defeater? … By believing q [i.e. the true conclusion] in the face of an obvious [intersubjectively obvious] defeater, S fails to comply with intersubjective standards of reasoning. In the former case, no such violation of standards is involved…” (578). I think that is somewhat misleading, because if the intersubjectively opaque defeater is in fact a real defeater ideally, then the intersubjective community does violate the ideal standard. Surely either Cohen missed this, or I am missing something (or forgetting). Nevertheless, it follows from this position that knowledge has a social component. That is, whether someone is justified in believing some attribution of knowledge depends in part upon the community that is being appealed to. And this is the last thing I want to focus on in Cohen’s article, but I’ll do this in my last post since this one is getting too long.  Thanks for reading!

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