1. Contextualism

One of the most striking developments in recent analytic philosophy is the enormous popularity of the approach to meaning and content known as “contextualism”. Contextualist theories are key players in a range of current debates in philosophy of language, epistemology, moral philosophy, the philosophy of logic, metaphysics, and elsewhere. An orientation that 25 years ago had at most a handful of adherents is now mainstream, in some precincts verging on orthodoxy.

What is contextualism? What it is to have a contextualist view of something? Consider the following three cases:

1) Imagine two acquaintances of a certain Mary, Naomi and Didi, who have independently learned that Mary has won a million dollars in the lottery. Didi is impressed by Mary’s windfall, and says to one of her friends, “Mary is rich.” Elsewhere, Naomi, who moves in more rarefied circles, says to one of her friends, “Mary is not rich at all.” Both Naomi and Didi have probably spoken the truth, for “it is very plausible that the truth of their claims about wealth turns on whatever standards prevail within their conversations” (Richard, 2004, p. 218).

2) Pia has a Japanese maple. She doesn’t cotton to the reddish hue of its leaves, so she paints them green. The task completed, she says, “That’s better. The leaves on my tree are green now.” She has spoken the truth. A few moments later her botanist friend Bill calls, soliciting samples for a study on the chemistry of green leaves. Pia says, “The leaves on my tree are green. You can have them.” Now she has spoken a falsehood (Travis, 1997, p. 89).

3) Suraj and his wife drive by their bank on a Friday to deposit a paycheck. But the lines are long and there’s no particular rush to get the check deposited. Suraj suggests bringing it by the next morning. His wife points out that many banks aren’t open on Saturdays. Suraj says, “I know it’ll be open. I was there two weeks ago on a Saturday.” His avowal of knowledge is true.

Now consider a slight variation. As before, Suraj and his wife drive by their bank on a Friday to deposit a paycheck and are met with long lines. In this scenario, however, it is extremely important for them that the check be deposited before Monday. Suraj makes the same suggestion to wait until Saturday as in the first version and similarly appeals to his previous Saturday visit to the bank. But his wife counters, “Banks do change their hours. Do you know the bank will be open tomorrow?” And Suraj replies, “Well, no. I’d better go in and make sure”. His denial of knowledge is true (lightly adapted from DeRose, 1992, pp. 913-4).

On a traditional conception of truth, the truth value of a claim is determined by two things: the content of the claim, and the way the world is. A claim is true iff what is claimed (content) is in fact so (world). Granting this conception, it’s very difficult to see how to explain Richard’s, Travis’s and DeRose’s proposed assignments of truth values except by supposing that the relevant predicate term in each case—“rich”, “green”, and “knows”—expresses a different content in its two occurrences. Briefly:

a) In 1), the world is held fixed. Given the law of noncontradiction, it follows that Naomi’s and Didi’s claims cannot both be true unless what Naomi claims, in saying “Mary is not rich”, is not the negation of what Didi claims in saying “Mary is rich”. And where could the content differ except in respect of what is expressed by “rich”?

b) In 2), the world is also held fixed. There is a complication in this case, however: Pia’s two claims are made at slightly different times. It is open to hold that her two claims differ in content in virtue of implicitly speaking of different times. (Imagine a silent “now” at the end of the second assertion to parallel the explicit one at the end of the first.) But this enables us to assign a univocal content to the two occurrences of “green” only if we are prepared to say that Pia’s leaves change color, in the relevant dimension, while she walks inside to answer the phone. And that seems ridiculous. The upshot, it would seem, is that Pia’s two remarks cannot differ in truth value unless what she said to be so of her leaves, when she first called them “green”, is not what she said to be so of her leaves when she next called them “green”.

c) In 3), the world is not held fixed; we are imagining two different ‘possible worlds’. But according to a familiar conception of knowledge, whether one knows a given proposition is a matter of what grounds or evidence one’s belief in the proposition is based upon. And Suraj’s grounds for believing the bank to be open do not appear to differ in the two scenarios. Since the two worlds are thus similar in all relevant respects, we are in the same situation as with 1): we cannot explain how both assertions could be true without positing a difference in the content expressed by the two uses of the predicative term.

If we generalize these results in the ways the examples seem to invite, we arrive at three contextualist doctrines, one about talk of wealth, one about talk of color, and one about talk of knowledge. The claim in each case is that the contribution of a certain verb or common noun to the content of an assertion is context dependent: what one asserts of something, in applying that noun or verb to it, will depend upon the context of one’s assertion. Indeed, two assertive uses of the predicative term can different in content to the extent that one such assertion is true and another is false even while the rest of the content is identical and the world is held relevantly fixed.
Some claims of context dependence are uncontroversial. Few people deny, for example, that the content of an assertion of a sentence containing “I” depends upon the context of use; in particular, it depends upon who the speaker is. (Clearly my utterance of “I am cold” might be true while your simultaneous utterance of that sentence be false, and the natural explanation is that my utterance speaks of me and yours of you.) The contextualist doctrines most widely discussed by philosophers these days are not pegged to obvious indexicals like “I”, “here” or “now”. Rather, as in our three examples, they focus on terms where it would be in the nature of a discovery that these terms introduce context dependence into the contents of the assertions they are used to frame. Isn’t it surprising that there is more than one thing we could be saying of a person in saying that she “knows” that such-and-such?

In what follows, I will not attempt to determine the truth of our sample contextualist doctrines, or of any other. Instead, I want to examine a very abstract idea about meaning that might be taken, and has indeed been taken, to provide support for contextualist doctrines across the board. The idea is that use determines meaning. What this idea is taken to suggest is that we can expect context dependence of the sort represented by our three samples to be quite prevalent—-to be, in fact, the characteristic and perhaps even ubiquitous condition of discourse in a natural language. I will give reasons for thinking that the idea does not provide any basis for this expectation.
To see the role the idea can be taken to play in underwriting contextualism, it will help to first look at what epistemological contextualists have had to say about skepticism.

2. Skepticism and doubt

Epistemological contextualism holds that the content of a knowledge ascription, as expressed by an assertion of a sentence of the form “S knows that p”, depends upon the context of the assertion (in ways that go beyond any context-dependence, such as it is, traceable to features of the expressions substituting for “S” and “p”). Details vary, but the most familiar version of the view holds that the content of an assertion of “S knows that p” is such that its truth value hinges in part on whether S is in a position to rule out salient doubts about the truth of the proposition p. Context dependence enters the picture because which doubts count as salient—which “counter-possibilities” are “relevant”, in the original terms of the literature—is held to vary with the context of the assertion.
Much of the appeal of this sort of view for epistemologists lies in its apparent potential to defuse arguments for skepticism. Suppose epistemological contextualism as just described is correct, and suppose also that “it is only in exceptional circumstances that the utterance ‘I might be dreaming’ … can be understood as educing a relevant possibility” (Putnam, 2001, p. 5). It follows from these suppositions that my inability to rule out that I am dreaming would not bear on the truth of what I assert when I utter, in an ordinary, non-exceptional context, “I know that there is a fire going in the study”. Since that doubt is not salient in that context, the truth conditions of my claim to know do not require my being able to rule it out. More generally, everyday knowledge ascriptions cannot be impugned by traditional skeptical arguments. Such arguments purport to deny knowledge precisely on the basis of the subject’s alleged inability to rule out hyperbolic doubts like the dreaming hypothesis, but hyperbolic doubts are not salient doubts in everyday contexts.

How does the contextualist know what I just quoted Putnam as telling us: namely, that the possibility that one might be dreaming is not a relevant possibility, not a live or salient doubt, for our everyday, non-exceptional claims to know things?

The obvious answer is that the contextualist notices that in ordinary life we do not in fact take such possibilities into account when evaluating knowledge claims—and that, moreover, if someone were in the course of everyday life to challenge our claim to know something on the basis of the dreaming hypothesis (or some other skeptical possibility), we would dismiss their challenge as inappropriate and bizarre. Charles Travis (1989, p. 183) writes, “What one says in speaking, on an occasion, of A’s knowledge (or ignorance) that F is determined by what, if anything, does count on that occasion as knowing that F. What so counts is what our reactions show to count.” What our reactions show, for Travis and Putnam and many others, is that skeptical doubts are not, on the great majority of occasions for speaking of people as knowing things, “real doubts” (1989, p. 60) , and so not doubts the putative knower must be able to rule out in order to be correctly said to “know”.

But this answer prompts a further question: do all our “reactions” really show this? Granted, we do not consider skeptical possibilities when offering and assessing knowledge claims in the ordinary run of life. And we would find it at best a weak joke if someone were to bring such a possibility up in the course of an ordinary conversation, in which a knowledge ascription had been proffered with a view to, say, sharing information, planning a strategy, or critiquing someone’s actions. But it is equally true—equally an undeniable empirical fact about human beings and their practices—that many people are impressed and puzzled by skeptical arguments when they are presented with them. They cannot easily accept the skeptical conclusion, of course, but they are struck by the apparent force of the skeptical arguments. And they take those arguments to challenge precisely our ordinary, everyday claims to know things. The contextualist looks at only some of our reactions to a given knowledge claim, those evident ‘in the moment’, as it were, while ignoring others—including our reactions when we worry over our everyday knowledge claims in light of a skeptical challenge. In so doing, the contextualist seems to forget the possibility of second thoughts.

Contextualists might appear to have a response here. They can hold that these second thoughts will inevitably miss their supposed target. When we consider a skeptical argument, we change the context. We make it, in Putnam’s term, “exceptional”. And so if we reach a conclusion about my knowledge that I might express with an utterance of “I didn’t know that there was a fire going in the study after all”, the conclusion I express might very well be true. It might be true because in considering the dreaming hypothesis, we may have made it a live or salient doubt, and thereby rendered the content of a knowledge ascription such that the subject must be in a position to rule out the dreaming hypothesis if the ascription is to be true. But if that is what has happened, then my denial that I “know” is not the negation of my earlier, ordinary claim to “know’, for my earlier claim to “know” did not require for its truth that I be able to rule out the dreaming hypothesis. Thus the truth of my skeptical denial of knowledge does not entail the falsity of my ordinary avowal of knowledge. Granted, it can seem to people that skeptical conclusions reached via skeptical arguments contradict ordinary claims to know. That was certainly how it seemed to Descartes and Hume—that’s why their skeptical arguments troubled them so much. Anyone who has ever supposed that skeptical arguments attack commonsense views about the scope of our knowledge has been under the same impression. But the contextualist can hold that this impression, however widespread, is an illusion. Thus Keith DeRose (2006, p. 321) suggests that it shows only that “speakers are to some extent blind to the context-sensitivity of ‘knows’.”

This maneuver has been much discussed in the literature. Perhaps it provides an adequate response to some of the objections that have been raised to the contextualist dissolution of the skeptical attack on ordinary knowledge. But it does not actually answer the question I raised above. That question was why, given that many people do take skeptical arguments to challenge ordinary claims to know, we should suppose that the “reactions” of producers and consumers of knowledge ascriptions reveal that skeptical doubts are not salient doubts—not “real”, not “live”, not “relevant” doubts—for such ordinary claims, and hence that it is not required that subject be able to rule them out in order to be truly said to know. There is an assumption at work here about which thoughts and activities on the part of human beings constitute the relevant “reactions” to ordinary knowledge claims, and which do not, and my question asks after the basis of that assumption. The line of thought just discussed does not justify or explain the assumption. It simply endeavors to trace out further implications of accepting it.
So where does the assumption come from?

3. Content and use

According to DeRose, the assumption is supported by a plausible view about the relationship between meaning and “ordinary usage” (2005, p. 190).
DeRose asks us to consider the “crazed theory” that “a necessary condition for the truth of ‘S is a physician’ is that S be able to cure any conceivable illness instantaneously” 2005, p. 190). This ‘theory’ is obviously wrong, but, DeRose asks, “in virtue of what is our language in fact such that” it is wrong? He answers the question thusly:

[I]t seems eminently reasonable to suppose that such facts as these, regarding our use, in thought and speech, of the term ‘physician’, are centrally involved: that we take to be physicians many licensed practitioners of medicine who don’t satisfy the demanding requirement alleged; that we seriously describe these people as being ‘physicians’; that we don’t deny that these people are ‘physicians’; that claims to the effect that these people are ‘physicians’ intuitively strike us as true; etc. It’s no doubt largely in virtue of such facts as these that the traditional view, rather than the bizarre conjectures we are considering, is true of our language: the correctness of the traditional view largely consists in such facts (2005, p. 291).

We are justified in taking these intuitions, reactions and uses to reveal the truth conditional content of utterances and sentences because those intuitions, reactions and uses in large measure constitute our utterances and sentences having the truth conditional content that they do.
In particular, “such facts about ordinary usage … provide us with our primary, most important and best evidence” for the context-sensitivity of given terms because those facts “are also that in which the context-sensitivity of those terms consists” (DeRose, 2005, p. 291). Applying the point to the predicate that interests him the most, DeRose concludes:
‘Knows’ is context-sensitive … largely because speakers in some contexts do (in fact, with propriety, and with apparent truth) seriously describe subjects as ‘knowing’ propositions when those subjects meet certain moderate epistemic standards with respect to the propositions in question, even if they don’t meet still higher epistemic standards, but, in other contexts, will go so far as to (in fact, with propriety, and with apparent truth) seriously deny that such subjects ‘know’ such things, reserving the ascription of ‘knowledge’ only for subjects that meet some more demanding epistemic standard’. (DeRose, 2005, p. 291)

Here, then, is a genuine answer to the question I raised in the last section. The reason we should not treat our reactions to skeptical arguments as telling us something about which doubts are live or salient for claims to “know” in everyday contexts is this: such reactions do not play a role in determining the truth-evaluable content of our everyday-context claims to “know”. The reactions that do play a role in determining the content are the actual applications of the term we make and accept in those everyday contexts. The different pattern of application we evince in the context of a discussion of a skeptical argument, by contrast, determines the content of those applications. To put it bluntly, the thought is that our tendency, in some contexts, to seriously describe people as “knowing” propositions when they meet certain conditions makes it the case that it is true, in those contexts, to say that they “know” those propositions. And our reluctance, in other contexts, to describe them that way makes it the case that, in those contexts, it is false to say that they “know”.

DeRose represents these views as instances of the principle that ordinary usage determines meaning, and that principle certainly seems difficult to deny. The meanings of expressions in a natural language are not determined by intrinsic features of the sounds and shapes of these expressions, nor are they assigned by divine command. They can come only from how we speakers of the language in fact use, and have used, these expressions. Whatever Joseph Smith or the characters in the Cratylus may have thought, this principle is not open for debate. But it is crucial to see how special is DeRose’s vision of what a meaning-determining “fact of ordinary usage” will look like. His “facts of ordinary usage”, with respect to a given expression F, are facts about which objects we apply F to in a given context and which objects we do not. In effect, they are facts, relative to each context in which we might have occasion to apply F, about how we are disposed to apply F in that context. The principle that use determines meaning is thus taken to yield the result that the truth-evaluable content of our assertions will align with our immediate dispositions in the use of the terms involved. And if our dispositions vary with context, then so will content.

I will (with obvious prejudice) call the view that content is determined by the sorts of facts DeRose mentions the superficial use-theory of meaning. As a general picture of how content must accrue to assertions, the theory is incorrect. The alignment it insists upon between content and disposition need not obtain. A range of intelligible and plausible ideas about the character of the content of given areas of discourse predicts divergences between content and disposition, and suggests in any case that simple dispositions to apply or refrain from applying needn’t be the primary basis by which content is determined.

I will discuss one model for such a divergence. It is provided by the account of natural kind terms introduced by Putnam (1975a, b). Putnam pointed out that members of the extension of a natural-kind term F needn’t fit the ‘stereotype’ associated with that term—i.e., the constellation of observable characteristics an ordinary speaker of the language associates with F. Membership in the extension thus cannot be a function of conformity to this stereotype. What members of the extension share, according to Putnam, is rather an underlying nature, which can be fully described and explained only in the vocabulary of some natural science—but which needn’t actually have been thus described and explained by anyone at the time that F is in currency. These features are impossible to square with the view that F’s extension is determined by ordinary speakers’ intuitions and dispositions concerning the acceptance and rejection of assertions of the form, “S is F”. Such intuitions and dispositions may reflect only the stereotype we associate with F, which in turn may correspond only loosely with the term’s actual extension.

Putnam’s account is perfectly compatible with the principle that use determines meaning. There may be a temptation to suppose otherwise, based on a thought to the effect that any extension-determining meaning we can ‘give’ to an expression, through our uses, reactions, dispositions, or intentions, must be such that we are in a position to adjudicate membership in that extension. But this proto-verificationist thought at best reflects a failure of imagination. So long as we possess, at least implicitly, the concept of a natural kind, and so long as we are in a position to draw attention to exemplars of a given natural kind (for example, demonstratively), we are perfectly capable of ‘giving’ an expression a meaning such that it stands for that natural kind construed on Putnamian lines. Indeed, there is nothing to prevent us from doing so explicitly and intentionally: consider “Let ‘F’ stand for that [natural] kind of thing” said while pointing at some instances thereof, a definition that certainly might be misunderstood, but then again, might not.

At the same time, Putnam’s account is frequently characterized as portraying the meaning of a natural-kind term as ‘world-involving’ or ‘extension-involving’, and these descriptions are apt. For on this account, if we set about to answer in any meaningful detail a DeRose-type question about “in virtue of what our language is such that” a natural-kind term has the particular extension that it does, we will quickly find our investigation shifting from an analysis of the relevant bits of language to consideration of the natural kind itself. What facts about speakers of English—about their usages, intentions, reactions and so forth—determine, on the current conception, is no more or less than this: that the English word “lemon” speaks of lemons. If, knowing this fact, we still have residual questions about the constitution of the extension of “lemon”—e.g., about why this object (which is green) should fall into that extension but that object (which is an etrog) should not—then these are questions about what it is to be a lemon, which is to say, questions for plant biologists, not for field observers of ordinary language use.

These points, at a suitable level of abstraction, generalize beyond the case of natural-kind terms. Consider DeRose’s example of “physician”. In our culture at the present time, there is an extremely complicated set of social institutions surrounding the practice of medicine. There are institutions involved in training physicians, in providing them with support, space and equipment, in overseeing their treatment of patients, in managing payment for their work, in orchestrating their collaborative endeavors, and so on. Inextricably entwined with all of this are rules and procedures for credentialing physicians. Physician-hood is about as thoroughly institutionalized a status as it is nowadays possible to achieve. Anyone who claims to be a “physician” while lacking the ordinary licenses, degrees and affiliations had better have some very special reasons for that claim if it is to have a chance at being true. The same goes for anyone who would deny that a person with the requisite licenses, degrees and affiliations is a physician. Ordinary speakers can be expected to differ in the extent to which they are familiar with the ins and outs of the credentialing and related procedures, and hence, for their intuitions and dispositions concerning the application of the word “physician” in particular cases to correspond to the relevant facts about the practice. And even if their intuitions and dispositions do line up neatly with the relevant institutional facts, it will not be the intuitions and dispositions, but rather the institutional facts with which they align, that explain why “physician”, being a word for physicians, has the extension that it does.

Again, there may be an inclination to protest that our words have only the meanings that we give to them, and it must therefore be ‘up to us’ whether a given object falls into the extension of a given word. And no doubt, there is some sense in which this claim is true. But in whatever sense it is true, it cannot conflict with the evident fact that we are often interested in kinds in the world around us whose natures we imperfectly understand, and hence whose boundaries we can individuate at best imperfectly. Given our interest in these kinds, it is natural that we should have words for speaking of them. We must then in some sense or other ‘give’ words meanings suitable for so speaking of them, and intuitions and dispositions on our part, as well as descriptive conditions in our possession, will certainly play a role in constituting their possession of such meanings. But in giving words meanings suitable for speaking of such kinds, we allow facts about the kinds themselves to determine appropriate extensions. The superficial use-theory seems plausible only if we reject this possibility—I think, necessity—and hence only given a too thin vision of the ways in which our words can engage the world of which they speak.

What about “know”? I do not claim that “know” is a natural-kind word like “lemon” or a social-institutional one like “physician”. But these examples have motivated an abstract point: our words can fix on properties and kinds that have a life at least partly independent of how we are disposed to apply those words to the objects we encounter. That is one way we can use words, and so one sort of meaning use might determine. “Know” might have such a meaning. Until we have been given a reason to think it does not, we have been given no reason to suppose that “facts about ordinary usage” of “know”, as DeRose conceives and constrains that category, have overriding authority in deciding upon the content “know” expresses. We have been given no reason to refuse to treat the results of skeptical reflection as “reactions” on our part to our ordinary knowledge claims. But without a basis for that refusal, the contextualist attempt to deflect the skeptical challenge, as outlined in the previous section, is unpersuasive. The skeptical challenge must fail, we can all agree. But we need a more satisfying understanding of why.
A more general moral is that we should be suspicious of the widespread tendency of contextualists of all stripes to move from observations about how we are disposed to apply terms directly to conclusions about the contents expressed by those terms. If there is a justification for this mode of argument, it is not to be found in the bare idea that use determines meaning.

4. Conclusion

I close with two tentative further thoughts.

First, the superficial-use theory of meaning makes it easier for us to be right in the things we say. It makes it easier for us to be right in the things we say because it entails that, in effect, we make ourselves right. In having the dispositions of application that we do, we shape the contents of our utterances in such a way as to go some distance toward ensuring their correctness. That might seem a pleasing prospect. The problem is that the easier it is for us to be right in this way, the less there is for us to be wrong about. And that means the less there is for us to find in the world to talk and think about and possibly come to understand. Only if our utterances are aptly interpretable as attempting to place the objects and people we discuss in categories constituted independently of the dispositions of use informing our immediate discursive context will those utterances be beholden to a subject matter whose objectivity promises no end of challenges for our understanding.

Second, Wittgenstein is famously associated with the idea that meaning is determined by use. It is no surprise that many contextualists claim him as their predecessor. But Wittgenstein is no superficial use-theorist. His conception of use is tied to the idea of institution and practice, and crucially, institutions and practices do not reduce to the applications and dispositions of a moment. For Wittgenstein, the context that matters, in understanding what we do with language, is broad and open-ended. The idea that the content of a given assertion will automatically be determined by dispositions specific to that local discursive context alone, and so that contextual variation in dispositions of application automatically bespeaks contextual-dependence of content, is foreign to him. I close with two passages, one familiar, one less so, that make this point well:

33. … What, in a complicated surrounding, we call “following a rule” we should certainly not call that if it stood in isolation.
34. Language, I should like to say, relates to a way of living.
In order to describe the phenomenon of language, one must describe a practice, not something that happens once, no matter of what kind.
It is very hard to realize this. (Wittgenstein, 1978, pp. 335-6)

How could human behaviour be described? Surely only by showing the actions of a variety of humans, as they are all mixed up together. Not what one man is doing now, but the whole hurly-burly, is the background against which we see an action, and it determines our judgment, our concepts, and our reactions. (Wittgenstein, 1980, p. 213)

References cited
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DeRose, Keith. 2005. “The Ordinary Language Basis for Contextualism, and the New Invariantism.” The Philosophical Quarterly 55:172-198.

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Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1978. Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. revised ed. MIT Press.

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