Reading Time: 7 minutes By Joreth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions meant. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

This is the ninth post after

#1 – a priori

#2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

#3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

#4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

#5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

#6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

#7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

#8 – Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #8: Belief in God: theism or atheism?

The question for this post is: Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism? Here are the results:

Accept or lean toward: contextualism 373 / 931 (40.1%)
Accept or lean toward: invariantism 290 / 931 (31.1%)
Other 241 / 931 (25.9%)
Accept or lean toward: relativism 27 / 931 (2.9%)

So, what the hell does this all mean? This might get a little dry, and I will try to parse it all out in normal, understandable English, even if some of the quotes I use will be jargon heavy.

This is, as you might guess, about knowledge claims, and how knowledge can be defined. Let us start with contextualism.

Epistemic Contextualism

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. What it is, how we come by it and so on. Contextualism is defined by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) as:

In very general terms, epistemological contextualism maintains that whether one knows is somehow relative to context. Certain features of contexts—features such as the intentions and presuppositions of the members of a conversational context—shape the standards that one must meet in order for one’s beliefs to count as knowledge. This allows for the possibility that different contexts set different epistemic standards, and contextualists invariably maintain that the standards do in fact vary from context to context. In some contexts, the epistemic standards are unusually high, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for our beliefs to count as knowledge in such contexts. In most contexts, however, the epistemic standards are comparatively low, and our beliefs can and often do count as knowledge in these contexts. The primary arguments for epistemological contextualism claim that contextualism best explains our epistemic judgments—it explains why we judge in most contexts that we have knowledge and why we judge in some contexts that we don’t—and that contextualism provides the best solution to puzzles generated by skeptical arguments.

I imagine you just read that several times. What does it mean?

Well, I might make the claim that I know that I have eyes. I see, and my brain gets signals and interprets those as sight, but the impulses come from my eyes.

But hang on, I could be a brain in a vat, or in The Matrix! I don’t know I am not in The Matrix, so I don’t know that I have eyes.


It seems that the plausibility of me being a brain in a vat, or not, having hands, or not, make all such claims mutually inconsistent. Contextualists maintain that the meaning of the word know is dependent on its context. One can surmise that the truth of such claims are dependent on the levels that we set, in context. We might call these epistemic standards.

In other words, if I am setting my standards super-high, at 100% indubitable, then all I know is that “I” exist (cogito ergo sum). I cannot prove I am not a brain in a vat, so on these high standards, I do not know I have eyes.

Drop the standards a little (assume that we are not brains in vats, that the world around us exists in some “real” way), and there is some truth to the claim, one could argue, that I have eyes. Usually, our standards are low, and we accept things as being known much more readily. We shelve such high-standards skepticism pragmatically. So in some contexts, a truth claim X is true, whilst in others it is false. It doesn’t have a universal truth.

I could get very technical here, and go into some funky detail, but I will leave that to you. Go check out the IEP or other sources for more detail.

Epistemic/Epistemological Relativism

Harvey Siegel defines such relativism as follows:

Epistemological relativism may be defined as the view that knowledge (and/or truth or justification) is relative – to time, to place, to society, to culture, to historical epoch, to conceptual scheme or framework, or to personal training or conviction – in that what counts as knowledge (or as true or justified) depends upon the value of one or more of these variables. According to the relativist, knowledge is relative in this way because different cultures, societies, epochs, etc. accept different sets of background principles, criteria, and/or standards of evaluation for knowledge-claims, and there is no neutral way of choosing between these alternative sets of standards. So the relativist’s basic thesis is that a claim’s status as knowledge (and/or the truth or rational justifiability of such knowledge-claims) is relative to the standards used in evaluating such claims; and (further) that such alternative standards cannot themselves be neutrally evaluated in terms of some fair, encompassing meta-standard.

This sounds “same same but different” to contextualism. There is similarity, sure, but the context now becomes entire frameworks of variables, such as culture and norms, as opposed to epistemic (skeptical) standards, in simple terms. As wiki states of factual relativism:

Yves Winkin, a Belgian professor of communications, responded to a popular trial in which two witnesses gave contradicting testimony by telling the newspaper Le Soir that “There is no transcendent truth. […] It is not surprising that these two people, representing two very different professional universes, should each set forth a different truth. Having said that, I think that, in this context of public responsibility, the commission can only proceed as it does.”[6]

The basis of it is that there is no way to establish that your set of standards is more superior than any other person’s, and that in a pluralist world, this presents a problem. Thus the truth of any claim is dependent upon those frameworks (culturally derived).

This has an effect on scientific claims because, some claim, these are themselves claims based on the social and cultural contexts out of which they emerge. Indeed, Stephen Hawking has recently proposed model-dependent realism, which bears some striking resemblances to such relativism. As wiki states:

Model-dependent realism is a view of scientific inquiry that focuses on the role of scientific models of phenomena.[1] It claims reality should be interpreted based upon these models, and where several models overlap in describing a particular subject, multiple, equally valid, realities exist. It claims that it is meaningless to talk about the “true reality” of a model as we can never be absolutely certain of anything. The only meaningful thing is the usefulness of the model.[2] The term “model-dependent realism” was coined by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their 2010 book, The Grand Design.[3]

One of the problems, as I see it here, is as follows. Imagine a community, A. A know proposition X. I can assess them, and evaluate their knowledge. A are justified, as a community with their own baggage, in believing X. But hang on, if A really are justified in believing X, and I see and evaluate that justification, then it must follow that should normatively believe X, if that justification holds. In other words, justifications, if they are based on sound logic, must hold irrespective of community. To me, this presents a problem. If we are to rely on sound logic, then surely this must cut through relativistic contexts?

Epistemic Invariantism

For contextualists, the knowledge claim depends on the utterance of the proposition. In what context was it “spoken”? John MacFarlane puts it this way:

Local Invariantism is rejected by philosophers who take “know” to be an indexical. An indexical is a word whose content (its contribution to the propositions expressed by sentences of which it is a part) is determined in part by features of the context. A paradigm is “today,” which denotes the day on which it is uttered.

This context will determine the outcome of the discussion. As Alexander Dinges states:

Epistemic invariantism, or invariantism for short, is the position that the proposition expressed by knowledge sentences does not vary with the epistemic standard of the context in which these sentences can be used. At least one of the major challenges for invariantism is to explain our intuitions about scenarios such as the so-called bank cases. These cases elicit intuitions to the effect that the truth-value of knowledge sentences varies with the epistemic standard of the context in which these sentences can be used.

There are no easy or particularly interesting explanations about the intricacies of invariantism, and I am not going to get technical here. That is not the purpose of this piece. As the SEP explains:

A utters, “Pretzels are tasty”, and B utters, “Pretzels are not tasty”. While the semantic invariantist (for whom the truth-value of taste predications is in no way context sensitive) will insist that the above exchange constitutes a genuine disagreement about whether pretzels are tasty and that at least one party is wrong, contextualists and truth-relativists have the prima facie advantageous resources to avoid the result that at least one party to the apparent disagreement has made a mistake.

But there are different flavours of the position. In fact, let philpapers themselves sum the whole thing up:

Epistemic contextualism is primarily a semantic thesis about the meaning of the word “knows” and its cognates. Invariantism, which is the more traditional view, holds that the truth or falsity of sentences like “Mary knows that the bank is open on Saturday” does not shift from context to context. Contextualists, however, argue that such a sentence can be true in one context but not another. A typical model here is the case of indexical expressions, like “I” or “here.” My utterance of “I am a president” can be false while Obama’s is true. Some contextualists have argued that this can solve skepticism in a satisfactory way: e.g. “I know I have hands” is true out on the street but false in the philosophy classroom, where the context raises the standards for knowledge.  Attempting to capture some of the same phenomena as contextualism, various forms of invariantism involving “pragmatic encroachment” have been developed.  These include interest-relative invariantism, on which a subject’s interests make a difference to whether they know a proposition, and related forms of subject-sensitive invariantism [SSI].

As mentioned, it gets pretty muddy around here. For example, a typical definition for SSI might be: Subject sensitive invariantism is the view that whether a subject knows depends on what is at stake for that subject: the truth-value of a knowledge-attribution is sensitive to the subject’s practical interests. Word salad. Suffice to say that this version of invariantism is slightly more charitable than a classic invariantism, since there is some movement around the subject, in a sort of contextual manner.

Anyway, that’s enough to get you started. Confused? Yup, you probably should be; banboozled, even. As the SEP states (where SA refers to Skeptical Argument – brain in a vat as above, with the eyes):

…if you present a group of subjects with SA, for instance, and ask them whether the conclusion contradicts an ordinary claim to know such a thing, some will say ‘yes’, and some will say ‘no’. If contextualism turns out to be true, then many are blind to that, and so on. So, whoever turns out to be right, the contextualist or the ‘invariantist’, a substantial portion of ordinary speakers are afflicted by “semantic blindness” (Hawthorne 2004, 107). ‘Bamboozlement’ is something we are stuck with either way.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...