Contextualism and Epistemic Modality Essay

May 16, 2018 Writing_Help

Epistemic modality is concerned with the speaker’s judgment and evaluation of the confidence level in knowledge or belief on which proposition is founded. The pattern of epistemic modality can be classified into other branches based on the conception of estranged knowledge in a given piece of work. This paper will discuss contextualism about epistemic modality and further outline an example that explains the need to consider the context when denoting semantics for epistemic modals. Finally, the paper will discuss two major MacFarlane’s opinions from retractions, eavesdroppers, and disagreements.

Most philosophical scientists argue that the epistemic modality is used to express the speaker’s mode of knowledge. The reason is that it helps in the evaluation of the opportunities that a particular hypothetical condition of affairs under evaluation will occur, is occurring or has already occurred in the sphere of interpretation for the assessment process. The primary aim of the assessment process is estimating the likelihood that a particular manner of affairs will be false or true in the context of the possible world under consideration. According to Weatherson and Egan (2011), there are high chances that people are not aware. For example, if someone is not in India, they cannot know whether it rained yesterday. Therefore, even if one does not know whether it rained, there is an epistemic possibility that it rained in India.

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DeRose (1991) argues that for a sentence to be considered as an epistemic modality, it must always be in the indicative mood. For example, for a sentence such as ‘it is possible that C’ to express an epistemic possibility, C must be in the indicative mood rather than a subjective mood. DeRose presents a case of a patient, John who shows some symptoms indicative of cancer and his doctor decides to carry out a filter test to determine his possibility of having cancer. According to DeRose, if the test is negative John does not have cancer but if the test is positive he can either have or not have cancer. DeRose emphasizes this case by considering the arguments of both the doctor and John’s wife. She gives a scenario in which the doctor says ‘it is impossible that John has cancer.’ On the other hand, the wife claims that it is possible for John to have cancer. The epistemic possibility is evident in this case since there is a possibility that the two statements could be true due to the fact that the doctor has some information about the test and has not informed John’s wife.

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Contextualism refers to a collection of philosophical analysis, which emphasizes the situation in which an expression or an act occurs. Moreover, in some relevant respect, the utterance expression or action can only be understood in relation to that context. According to Keith DeRose (1991), the contextual views are formed through the use of philosophy, the controversial issues such as the ‘meaning of J’, ‘knowing J’, and having a reason for its existence meaning that it is only related to a particular context. This implies that people’s elucidations of some wrong or right behaviors are related to the context, in which those actions have been performed. Philosophers claim that contextualists’ views are closely related to moral relativism and situational ethics. Hawthorne, Weatherson, and Egan (2011) explain that, in epistemology, contextualism treats the word ‘know’ as a sensitive issue since its meaning can be altered by different contexts apart from the word ‘I’ that has an unvarying definition in all linguistic situations. Other words, such as ‘here’ and ‘now’ are referred to as ‘indexical’ since they can either be a subject or object depending on the meaning they convey (Hawthorne, Weatherson & Egan, 2011).

Contextualism in epistemology is mainly a semantic hypothesis about the denotation of the word ‘knows’, its cognates and peculiarities in English. According to DeRose (1991), the tenet explains the invariantism that is regarded as a traditional view as well as holds the truth and falsity of the statements in the language. For example, a statement such as ‘Carol knows that the hotel is open on Sundays’ does not shift its meaning from one context to another. Egan elucidates that even if that sentence is used in different settings, it will still communicate the same message (Weatherson & Egan, 2011). However, he argues that the statement can be right in one context but bogus in another one. A typical model of such a case is the use of indexical expressions that include ‘here’ and ‘I’. For example, a sentence such as ‘I am the United States president’ is wrong when said by any individual, but right when said by Obama. Moreover, the expression ‘I have legs’ is true when stated in the street but viewed as false when said in a philosophy class since a philosophy classroom context raises the value and standards of knowledge. This significantly explains the need for considering the context when specifying a semantic for epistemic modals. Throughout the work of DeRose and David Lewis (1991), they argue that contextualism in epistemology modals is not a view of what justification, knowledge or strengths of epistemology consist, but a thesis that explains the importance of ‘knows’ in the sentences and when determining the semantic categories of the words and sentences. In addition, epistemology merges contextualism with the views of knowledge to be used to address the issues relating to epistemology and dilemmas such as uncertainty and Lottery paradox.

Therefore, it is vital for people to have the knowledge about the things they are discussing and the context in which they speak since it influences the truth or falsity of utterance. Therefore, some scientist argue that despite contextualism is concerned with the word ‘know’, individuals must be careful while using it. Moreover, when introducing thesis or a thesis statement in a paragraph, the word may give a context-sensitive meaning to the sentence when it predicates it. For example, the expression ‘know that Obama is president’ becomes context-sensitive in the way contextualists describe the sentence. Finally, contextualists elucidate that most natural language predicates are usually context-sensitive.

MacFarlane’s Argument from Eavesdroppers

According to MacFarlane, the genuineness or falseness of a statement is presided over an epistemic modal. That means that the knowledge possessed by the speaker is true if the context is compatible with the speaker’s is awareness. The body of knowledge, according to MacFarlane, is also relevant to a particular theory where it does not only concern the speaker, but the combination of the knowledge of all parties is related to the dialogue in which the orator is involved. In such a case, a concept discussed by a group of people is proposed as the correct one. The speaker’s modal can be occasionally judged as incorrect, even in the presence of a group. For example, if a teacher eavesdrops a discussion among students on a wrong biological concept, the teacher considers that as wrong, even if the whole group of pupils discussed the issue consulting with each other before making a conclusion. It is important to supplement the explanation with practicality where the reasons for unacceptability are explained using ‘must’ and ‘might’ in a continuous situation. According to him, the simple account is already on its supposed track, but some more complex data insinuate the inaccuracy of conclusions made in simple accounts and situations. The above example can be interpreted in this context. However, regardless of the students’ compatibility in their knowledge of the biological concept, the teacher is inclined to judge on the incorrectness of the students’ argument.

MacFarlane’s Argument from Retraction

MacFarlane’s relativity framework of retraction was part of his utterance of truth in both the truth and assessment context. It provided values for the relevant circumstances when evaluating given condition. According to MacFarlane, there is a difference between the truth of assertion and accuracy. Given the link between these two concepts, MacFarlane argues that they are relative, which results from the advantage of Contextualism (MacFarlane, 2008). That is prevalent since they have the indexical and non-indexical meaning. MacFarlane understands retraction as the acceptance of the fact that the composition of the previous view is false after assessment, which is also referred to as ‘taking back’. According to him, retraction does not necessarily insinuate that the speaker of the former information was wrong. The theory, however, makes some assumptions, and among them is the fact that relativism of truth is correct. That means that the contents in the assertions are true inclusive that of their use and assessment. He also assumes that similarly to the truth, accuracy is also relative to the contents of assessment. However, the assertion should be accurate if its content is relatively true to its particular context of evaluation. Thirdly, MacFarlane considers that retraction is based on acknowledging that the content of the former assessment is wrong in relation to a more recent evaluation. Retracting the previous one does not mean that the asserter was also fault since it was accurate. In contrast to the above statement, it is not possible to understand the second and third argument of MacFarlane since due to the connection of accuracy and truth, after retraction, an argument should be inaccurate.

MacFarlane’s Disagreements

According to MacFarlane, the idea of discourse being subjective might be semantically divided in relativism and contextualism. The relativists argue that contextualism has failed to consider the possibility of disagreement. For example, if one person says that one mile is a long distance, and another denies this statement, they are definitely in disagreement with each other since their claims are not compatible. The answer to the question of what makes two parties disagree is a difficult one to find a response. Contextualism, on the other hand, is based on the subjectivity of a discourse to agree to the speaker of a large group. It describes the point when the disagreement is lost. Thus the idea of the speaker or a group of people is assumed to be the ultimate truth. For example, if the speaker says that the apples are delicious, she means that they taste good to her or to those people in her group. If a person says that the story is funny, it undoubtedly inflicts laughter to her or her group due to its sense of humor. If an affair is referred to as in the previous case, it means that the outcome of the activity or result of some aspect will depend on the other factors. Therefore, if everything corresponds to the speaker’s expectations, it is possible that they will utter after the word similarly. If the dependable factor runs counter to the expected, the results for a particular aspect will be the vice versa of the desired outcomes. It thus invokes semantic mechanisms that are supposed to handle the most familiar of context sensitivity demonstrated by quantifiers and the graded objectives.

It is worth stating that some of MacFarlane’s arguments succeeded since they are based on rational evidence. For example, MacFarlane explains in his arguments that when a person eavesdrops something, it does not necessarily have to be correct since one can interpret the information depending on his knowledge. That is evident in situations where two persons of the same age or social class use a language that they identify themselves to communicate with each other. In such a case, if another person, who does not understand the language, eavesdrops, he can understand the message wrongly. The reason is that the individual will use his knowledge to unravel the meaning of their conversation. Moreover, the conversing persons can use some words that are familiar to the eavesdropper to mean a different thing. However, MacFarlane does not refute that the speech of a third person can have some truths. He, therefore, argues that the speech or the solipsistic contextualism can be true or affected by the speaker’s evidence or knowledge, hence should be regarded as a possibility rather than actuality. Moreover, MacFarlane explains that there is a difference between the truth and claim. According to him, in order to term some information as the truth, it must be proved since any unjustified data is treated as a claim. Therefore, some of the claims that people make about certain situations should not be treated as the accurate information since anything in philosophy that is not proved can either be wrong or correct. Moreover, philosophy is used to challenge some of the beliefs that people follow, but which are not proved. For example, individuals who claim that they are bright in a philosophy class are said to be wrong since philosophy does not analyze things according to the people’s beliefs, but through the use of facts and evidence. An individual’s brightness does not only reflect their capabilities to handle and pass an examination, but also the ability to think and judge critically.

Reference List:

  1. Egan, A & Weatherson, B 2011, Epistemic modality, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. DeRose, K 1991, ‘Epistemic possibilities’, The Philosophical Review, no. 100, pp. 581-605
  3. MacFarlane, K 2008, Epistemic Modals Are Assessment-Sensitive, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Montminy, M 2012, ‘Epistemic modals and indirect weak suggestives’, Dialectica, no. 66, pp. 583-606.
  5. Weatherson, B & Egan, A 2011, Introduction: epistemic modals and epistemic modality, viewed 18 December 2014.
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