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Epistemic contextualism as a linguistic thesis

Grindrod, J. (2017) Epistemic contextualism as a linguistic thesis. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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This thesis is concerned with the linguistic plausibility of epistemic contextualism. Epistemic contextualism can be (roughly) characterised as the view that the truth conditions of knowledge attributions are sensitive to the context of utterance. As such, it is a linguistic claim that is usually defended on the basis of certain context-shifting experiments and is then usually integrated into a semantic theory that captures this context-sensitivity. The linguistic challenge for epistemic contextualism is to be successfully integrated into our best account of linguistic communication. I will argue that as of yet there is no satisfactory solution to the linguistic challenge and that this should lead us to re-envision the view at its most basic level. First, I analyse the intuitive basis of epistemic contextualism. The contextualist claims regarding ordinary linguistic intuitions in the context-shifting experiments have recently been challenged experimentally. In response to this, I present new experimental evidence for a contextual effect on our linguistic intuitions using context-shifting experiments with third-person knowledge attributions. In doing so, I defend the intuitive basis of epistemic contextualism. I then analyse the plausibility of capturing this contextual effect in a range of linguistic proposals. I argue that we do not have sufficient reason to reject an implicature-based explanation of the phenomenon. I do, however, present defeasible evidence against such an approach. I then analyse the most plausible semantic contextualist account in the literature – Schaffer & Szabó’s epistemic comparativism. However, I find their proposal to be unmotivated and problematic. I then analyse the plausibility of capturing the context-sensitivity of knowledge attributions via a pragmatic enrichment account of what is said. I do so by analysing Schoubye & Stokke’s minimalist account of what is said and Peter Ludlow’s dynamic lexicon view. However, I find both approaches to be problematic. With this in mind, epistemic contextualism finds itself at something of an impasse: there is experimental evidence for a contextual effect on our linguistic intuitions regarding knowledge attributions but as of yet there is no good explanation of this effect available. Rather than using this as a point at which to defend a new semantic or pragmatic proposal, I instead raise a fundamental concern regarding the contextualist project. I argue that there is a fundamental lack of clarity as to what the contextualist aims to achieve. I distinguish between two possible approaches to epistemic contextualism that differ in their aims – one more ambitious and one more modest. Once this distinction is drawn, I argue that there is a severe explanatory lacuna in the ambitious approach, and no promising way of filling it. Given this, the epistemic contextualist should re-envision some of their basic commitments along more modest lines. This proves crucial regarding the linguistic challenge, as modest contextualism is able to bypass the linguistic challenge altogether by remaining neutral on a range of particular linguistic issues. Modest epistemic contextualism is defended in the final chapter.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Borg, E. and Hansen, N.
Thesis/Report Department:Department of Philosophy
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > Philosophy
ID Code:73489

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