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On recent work on faultless disagreement

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In a number of different areas, there have recently been debates about two different forms of construing context-dependence: contextualism (indexical relativism) and relativism. For example, consider those who think that the truth of claims about what is known depends on an epistemic standard (e.g. Cohen 1986, DeRose 1991 and Lewis 1996). For example, the claim that Anna knows that she has hands, will be true with respect to low epistemic standards, but not true with respect to the highest epistemic standards. Supposing that the truth of such claims does indeed depend on epistemic standards, then there are two different ways of explaining this. The first one is to say that it is the propositional content of claims that varies with the context. Thus, when I say first, truly, that Anna knows she has hands, and then later say falsely that she knows she has hands, then the change in truth value is due to the fact that the two utterances expressed different propositions (each of them about a different epistemic standard). This can be called ‘contextualism’. The second way of construing the situation is to say that the proposition expressed is the same on each of the occasions, it’s only that that proposition is evaluated with respect to different epistemic standards (e.g. MacFarlane 2005). This can be called ‘relativism’. The same alternatives arise in many other areas, e.g. epistemic modals/probabilities, evaluative sentences, future contingents, causal claims, etc.

In this paper, I first review the motivations for supporting either of the two alternatives, in particular recent work by MacFarlane, Recanati and Cappelen and Hawthorne. I show that even in the hardest cases (e.g. future contingents) there are no compelling reasons to prefer relativism to contextualism or vice versa, though some weak reasons to do with theoretical elegance can be adduced in favour of relativism. Then I consider some phenomena that are difficult to explain for both relativists and contextualists. I offer a tentative explanation of these phenomena.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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