Skepticism is an approach that questions otherwise acceptedknowledge.
Philosophically, skeptical views involve acknowledging and exploringdoubt with regards to claims that are generally accepted; skepticism isdiscussed frequently in epistemology, and examines questions of whether or nota thought, idea, or theory is actually true, such as whether or not God exists(REFERENCE). Skepticism can be examined with regards to the extent of the doubtbeing analysed, or the focus of the doubt. The focus of a doubt is generallythe basis of epistemological skeptics’ views; epistemological skepticism isconcerned with the validity of beliefs and ideas, and whether or not the beliefis rational and justified. Skepticism gives birth to a paradox of sorts,because one can have a collection of logical beliefs, that, when aggregated,make no sense rationally or intellectually– leading to questioning theknowledge that these beliefs were based on. Contextualism is a set ofphilosophical views that attempts to solve the skeptical paradox, and in thispaper I will outline the paradox, the contextualist response, and twocriticisms of contextualism.The skeptical paradox arises from the radical skeptics’perspective that knowledge and rational belief is impossible to achieve,because they believe that it impossible to know whether or not something istrue and justified. Their argument is presented in the form of a paradox, withthree distinct issues that show how beliefs can appear to be sensibleindividually, but collectively they cannot hold up to epistemic analysis andfall apart. The first point is that the skeptic believes that one cannot trulyknow if a skeptical hypothesis is false; a skeptical hypothesis is one that, ifproven true, would break down previously accepted knowledge that one believedtrue.
An example of a skeptical hypothesis is Descartes’ malicious demonconcept; this concept suggests that someone could be possessed by a demon, andmade to believe things about the world and themselves that are false, such thata person with no arms may believe to have arms. The crux of this concept isthat there is no difference in the perceptions of the possessed person and aperson who is living normally, suggesting that one cannot plausibly knowwhether or not they are possessed in the first place, and cannot know if theirperceptions are true.If one cannot comprehend or identify whether or not a skepticalhypothesis is false, then one can assume that some of, or all of theirknowledge may be false. For example, a person may believe that they are eatingan ice cream sundae, and believe that they are not possessed by a demon; butthis person would not be able to know if they were possessed by a maliciousdemon, and therefore they will not be able to know if they are eating an icecream sundae.The last issue that the paradox brings to light is related, and itconcerns the commonly accepted notion that if one believes something, they knowit to be true. Superficially, this concept seems to be logical– if onebelieves that they are sitting and eating an ice cream sundae, then they wouldbelieve that they know that they are sitting and eating the sundae, and at thesurface there is no reason to question this. However, this assertion in tandemwith the prior two presents the skeptical paradox in full: if one cannotdetermine whether or not a skeptical hypothesis is false, and if cannot havethe knowledge of whether or not the hypothesis is true and consequently may nothave the knowledge to confirm that the things that they believe are true, thenone also does not have the knowledge to confirm what they believe.Contextualism, a philosophical viewpoint that is often perceivedas anti-skeptic, takes into account the context surrounding behaviour, ideas,or events and holds that the only way to truly understand the behaviour, ideaor event is by understanding it relative to the context surrounding it(REFERENCE).
Contextualism holds that knowledge and truth can only beunderstood in any meaningful way when examined relative to the contextsurrounding them. Contextualists argue that the skeptical paradox is only aparadox in so far as it exploits how knowledge can be affected by context.Depending on the conversational context, the standards by which knowledge canbe acquired and shared, and therefore confirmed or believed, changes. Because contextualists depend on context to accept orreject knowledge, ideas, or events, it is possible that, from a contextualistviewpoint, that skepticism can be true in come contexts, and anti-skepticismcan be true in others, depending on the standards of the context. If theconversational context of a situation involves high standards for knowledgeacquisition and confirmation, then the assertion that one knows very little(but not necessarily nothing, as a radical skeptical would claim) is true inthat context. Similarly, when the conversational context of a situationinvolves low standards on which to judge epistemics, then one can make theclaim that they know what they believe.
Keith DeRose, the American philosopher, is one of the mostprominent voices of contextualism, has produced arguments that are used in muchanti-skeptic discourse in epistemology. If person A, the attributor ofknowledge, says that person S knows P, a contextualist must analyze theepistemic integrity of this statement based on person A’s conversationalcontext (DeRose 1995, 4). This suggests that the epistemic integrity, andtherefore the “truth,” of A’s statement changes based on the context of theirclaim. DeRose suggests that even if the conversational context changes, one’sepistemic position (their knowledge, beliefs, etc.
) can remain staticregardless of the context shift (DeRose 1995, REFERENCE). He attributes this tointuition, and suggests that the issue is not that one’s knowledge or beliefsare false as skeptics would assert, rather it is the epistemic position that iscritiqued: it is one’s epistemic position that is judged based on the standardsof the context that determines whether or not they have knowledge (DeRose 1995,REFERENCE).Since it is one’s epistemic position that determines how one canapproach the question of knowledge acquisition and sharing, DeRose presents hisideas on what makes a certain epistemic position stronger than another withregards to P. He writes that a strong epistemic position with regards to Pmeans that S must “have a belief as to whether P is true match the fact of thematter as to whether P is true, not only in the actual world, but also at theworlds sufficiently close to the actual world” (DeRose 1995, 34). To understandthis statement, consider the man eating the sundae from earlier– we will referto him as Kim. Kim believes that he will eat a sundae tonight, because he hasthe knowledge that he eats sundaes on this particular day of the week, that hehas ice cream in his freezer, and believes that it is unlikely that someonebroke into his apartment to eat his ice cream.
Josh, a man who is nearly a copyof Josh, has the same knowledge as Joshua does with regards to his informationalstate (he has ice cream in his freezer, he eats sundaes on this particularevening, etc.), save he also has the additional information that his ice creamwas in his freezer a minute ago because he looked inside to get some ice forhis lemonade. Josh, therefore, has a stronger epistemic position with regardsto P (that is, that he will eat a sundae tonight) than Kim does.
Even thoughthey are both likely to carry this truth on the same worlds, Josh hasinformation that can carry the truth to one or more additional words; includingin a world where his power goes out and all his ice cream melts in the freezer.DeRose explains that if S believes P, then S believes in P both intheir world and does not believe it in the worlds where P is actually untrue.He holds that in any conversational context, there are possible circumstances(or propositions, O) that could pose an issue to P, and S must be “sensitive”to these if S truly claims to know P (DeRose 1995, 35). This implies that Smust have the epistemic position that allows them to track the truth of Pacross several worlds based on the O that is most pressing in that particularconversational context, as well as other propositions that S themselvesbelieves to be true so that the standards of that particular conversationalcontext are met (DeRose 1995, 35). S may know an O of P, or they may not, thenthe standards of S’ epistemic position is questioned, sometimes to the pointthat S’ belief in P must be sensitive to a variety of Os for S’ belief to beconsidered knowledge, and to be considered true in this context (DeRose 1995,35-36). Therefore, to a contextualist, the only thing that changes aconversational context is if Os are added, removed, or changed to become moredemanding than others; the changes in propositions is what adds additionalworlds to consider epistemically (DeRose 1995, 36).Arguments against the contextualist solution to the skepticalparadox often target the contextualist idea that the epistemic validity of S’beliefs changes based on conversational contexts. While one can argue thatknowledge is relative to the person claiming to have that knowledge, and it isdependent on that sort of context, it does not mean that everyone’s epistemicposition is true.
If Josh believes that the ice cream sundae at his ice creamparlour is priced at $4.99, and Kim believes that the sundae is priced at$13.99, they simply cannot both be right. A contextualist might argue that oneof them is right in a world where the prices are different.Another issue with contextualism is that one could argue that itdoes not provide a convincing reason for one to dismiss a skeptical hypothesisas false, making contextualism’s solution to the skeptical paradox essentiallyuseless.
A contextualist response would likely involve the reasoning that onecould have the required knowledge to dismiss a skeptical hypothesis based onrational thinking. This stance also places skepticism in the position thatskepticism is unquestionably right, and skepticism has neither been universallyaccepted as being true, nor have skeptics provided arguments that are free offlaws.