Monday, July 18, 2011

Stewart Cohen on Epistemic Contextualism part 3 (Closing Considerations)

Alright, to finish this topic so that I can move on to other articles or thoughts, I will just use Cohen’s own words and then give my best shot at pointing out some difficulties. In light of what has been said in the last two posts of this series, Cohen writes, “I have argued that whether S knows that q depends, in part, on intersubjective standards. This raises the question of how precisely those standards are determined. In particular, which social group sets the standards? …
Perhaps…it is our own social group that sets the standards. But surely a moron society would not use our standards. And a genius society would surely make their epistemic assessments according to standards consonant with their superior reasoning powers. Is ‘knowledge,’ then, ambiguous between various concepts each based on a different standard? This would entail an indefinite number of concepts of knowledge…
A better way to view matters is to suppose that attributions of knowledge are indexical or context-sensitive. The standards that apply are determined by the context of attribution…
This raises the question which social group of the attributor (A) is the relevant group. Is it the society at large in which A lives? … his professional circles? Perhaps the standards that apply are determined by A’s own reasoning ability (in which case they are not intersubjective at all). I am not sure how to decide this. Presumably, the standards are variably determined in all these ways, although it is unclear which mechanisms govern the shifts” (578-579).
Now this means that the context that is the relevant one for the attributions, themselves determine whether the attributor has good reasons. How do we determine which contextual standards apply, well, says Cohen, it is the intention of the attributor that makes the difference. So if I intend moron standards, and I myself don’t have an evident defeater, then I can be said to know. But, if I intend genius standards, and I don’t have any evident defeaters, if the genius society does have evident defeaters, then I don’t know (see page 580 first paragraph).
I have a few issues with this position, first, it is somewhat confusion because earlier in the paper Cohen says that someone cannot have good reasons without having intersubjectively good reasons, but then later says that someone can have subjectively good reasons (say the smartest man ever) that are not intersubjectively good reasons. For example, there may be some intersubjectively evident undermining defeater for some knowledge attribution, but some super genius has a subjectively evident (yet intersubjectively opaque) restoring defeater, that is, a defeater that itself undermines the undermining defeater, that only he sees (and is a good reason). Is this person justified or not justified in believing the conclusion based upon the subjectively good reason, though the subjectively good reason is intersubjectively a non-good reason (that is, an ideally good but not permissibly good reason)? Well, the answer to me seems unclear, and in fact it seems as if Cohen sort of goes back and forth, though I think in the end he would say that such a person is justified. But if that is the case, if context-sensitivity is not important in every instance of knowledge, then it is not a necessary condition for justification. If that is the case, it seems Cohen is wrong when he asserts that there is a context component to knowledge.
The last one I have (though there are more than these two) is with what Cohen has just said. Cohen writes, “A better way to view matters is to suppose that attributions of knowledge are indexical or context-sensitive. The standards that apply are determines by the context of attribution.” Then two paragraphs down Cohen gives some of these (they are listed above) determining contexts, namely, society at large, professional circles, and one’s own reasoning ability. Cohen then says, “Presumably, the standards are variably determined in each of these ways, although it is unclear which mechanisms govern the shift” (emphasis added). First, in this scheme, why should we think that any ‘mechanism’ governs the shifting contexts? Second, Cohen seems to be saying that context determines that attribution or denial of knowledge, and then he is saying that the context that determines the truth-value of knowledge attributions is itself variably determined, that is, shifts and changes in different circumstances. That is, the context that determines the justification for some knowledge attribution on some reason in this scheme is itself context-sensitive, and we don’t know (and perhaps can’t determine) what makes the shifts among these various contexts. So the justification of the attribution on the reason shifts under these various contexts, and we can’t really know what mechanism governs these shifts. But if that is the case, what confidence do we have that we actually can recognize when these shifts have taken place? My question then is, how is this an escape from skepticism? It seems as if this scheme is running us into skepticism, because we can be so unclear about whether our belief is justified. Does anyone see a flaw or have an suggestions on this topic?

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