Brains, Persons, and Society *** ABSTRACTS
Cervelli, Persone e Società ***ABSTRACTS
Department of Philosophy,
attribution and contextualism
1. The aim of this paper is to reflect on our conception of knowledge by considering the practice of knowledge attribution. The verb "to know", as well as its cognates in languages other than English, has frequent second person occurrences. This fact is revealing with respect to the functions that knowledge-talk is designed to play in face-to-face communication as well as in society. These functions, in turn, uncover interesting features of our conception of knowledge.
I examine three second person uses of "know", namely: (1) "you know that" or "As you know...," as used to introduce presupposed information; (2) parenthetical or tag "you know"; (3) "you know" as used while assessing one's interlocutor's behavior. In cases (1) and (2) the addressee is attributed knower status: he or she is acknowledged as being in a position to felicitously issue an assertion that p, that is, a finding that p, based on criteria and licensing inferences. Correspondingly, p is placed in a "space of reasons" and is granted knowledge status. In case (3), knowledge is not attributed to the addressee as a status but as a de facto competence to speak and act successfully. Such a competence is no felicity condition: if someone fails to possess it, his or her action or speech act is in general not at risk of being "null and void", but unsuccessful or incorrect or (in the case of assertion) false.
2. What we call knowledge appears to have a dual nature. It has both (1) a natural, reliability-related aspect and (2) a normative, status-related aspect.
On the one hand, knowledge as a status may be (in part) a matter of agreement. It is a matter of agreement, at least in part, whether a speaker has contributed a piece of knowledge to our shared cognitive world, and also, whether his or her utterance really counts as an assertion: when an assertion is issued by someone who recognizedly is in a position to make that assertion, and there is no reason to doubt the truth of what he or she says, what is asserted counts as knowledge whether it is in fact (unknown to us) ultimately reliable or not. Conditions for speaker entitlement and rules of commitment connected to knower status contribute to the normative aspect of knowledge.
But knowledge attribution is defeated when the alleged knower does not face up to the world successfully enough and his or her competence to speak and act proves flawed and therefore unreliable. In such cases we deny that the subject "really knew" that p and this shows that, to the aim of knowledge attribution, the reliability-related aspect of knowledge prevails over the status-related whenever the former overtly fails.
The reliability-related and the status-related aspect of knowledge are connected to each other because knowledge does not enjoy "luminosity" (T. Williamson, Knowledge and its limits, Oxford University Press 2000), i.e. we cannot always know whether we know. So, intersubjective agreement about knower and knowledge status is often the best way we have (albeit an indirect one) to approach reliability issues.
3. The truth/falsity assessment of knowledge attributions has been claimed to be context relative.
Considering cases in which this seems to be so, though, it is reasonable to wonder whether this apparent context-relativity is a matter of the relative height of the relevant standards for knowledge, as has been claimed by several contextualists, or a matter of the greater salience of either aspect of knowledge discussed in this paper. I describe two opposed scenarios, associated with scepticism and with scientific research respectively, according to this proposal. In the former, there may be knowledge according to reliability (we may in fact know that these are our hands, etc...), but not (at least in the sceptic's opinion) according to entitlement. In the latter, there is knowledge as entitlement (if the scientist were not entitled to issue assertions about the subject matter of his/her scientific research, who else would be?), but it is all to be seen how reliable the scientist's claim eventually proves.
My conclusion is contextualist as to the truth/falsity assessment of knowledge attributions: we do not assess them against entire possible worlds (circumstances), but against contexts (sets of pertinent facts selected by the ongoing activity). I suggest a specific factor, the reliability-status duality, which affects the assessment of knowledge attributions. But I do not suggest that "know" should be held to possess different meanings in different contexts: whenever we use "know" the same (complex) lexical entry is activated.