Philosophy Hurts Your Head

The blog of a cranky Philosophy PhD Student from Newcastle, Australia.

Skepticism, Contextualism and Kripke?

Posted by Sam D on June 30, 2006

Aaron Cotnoir of What is it like to be a blog? , Voices his concerns regrding contextualism in :
Skepticism about the Contextualist response to Skepticism

“Recently, philosophers have suggested that garden-vareity epistemic skepticism can be answered with contextualism. Contextualists argue that standards for correctly asserting that S knows that P can vary. In some contexts, the criteria for knowledge attribution are loose. In other contexts, standards are more rigorous.”

What I’m wondering is if Kripke’s Skeptical Paradox can be correctly characterised as ontological rather than epistemic skepticism, does this solution still work? In some ways I think it might, as contextualism does bear some resemblance to Kripk’e Sceptical Solution. But there seem to be some important differences as well. I’ll talk more about these later when I have a better grasp of ‘contextualism’ as such. The problem (for Aaron at least) is that applying this solution to rule-following commits the position to being contextualist about the truth of what the ‘right’ way of using words is, which he may not want to commit to.


21 Responses to “Skepticism, Contextualism and Kripke?”

  1. MH said

    I may be off the mark entirely, but doesn’t Kripke make some comments about whether the problem is ontolofical or epistemological?

  2. Yes, he does, but not all of his critics agree. I side with Kripke in this case though. That said I think the question still stands.

  3. MH said

    I just wasn’t sure how good my memory of that material was … I also have to say that any attempt to construe the problem as being epistemological – on my recollection – would seem to miss the point, since it isn’t about knowledge of meaning so much as the ‘existential’ (probably not the best term for my meaning – but it is early and I’ve spent most of the past couple of days reading Aquinas and Spinoza, so excuse my fuzziness) status of meanings. It seems as though transposing the problem into an epistemological question raises a separate issue that Kripke avoids: that, even if there is some fact in virtue of which A’s use of ‘x’ means ‘x’, it may not be possible to know that fact. This seems to support Kripke’s insistence on the problem being ontological.

    [There is something slightly naive about this comment … I may have made some notes on this theme last year, I’ll have a look and get back to you.]

  4. I would not worry too much about seeming naive.
    I agree there is a separate epistemological question there, but if we can’t move past ontological uncertainty, it seems beside the point. In any case, what I am still struck by is the resemblance between how Kripke presents his sceptical solution, and how some people present contextualism. What I am thinking about is this: What are the differences between the Sceptical Solution, and Contextualism? Because if contextualism can be sucessfully applied to Kripke’s case, this might throw doubt on the status of this problem as epistemic rather than ontological, but I suspect that this is unlikely. More worrying would be the conclusion that the Sceptical Solution is so similar that it can only really be applied to an epistemic rather than ontological problem.

  5. MH said

    Okay, continuing the naivety, I took the Sceptical Solution to be an epistemological response to the ontological problem. (If I misconstrue Kripke’s position in the following, then you can safely ignore what I’m about to set out.) The problem is focused on the existence of a fact in virtue of which we can know that ‘x’ means ‘x’. Now, Kripke advances that there is no thing that meets the requirements for such a fact – which implies that the fact does not exist – and this is what I considered to be the ontological problem, since it turns on the existence of a fact, which Kripke cannot solve. Given this failure, Kripke turns to the stop-gap sceptical solution, where he attempts to show that there is a means of knowing that ‘x’ means ‘x’ whilst ignoring the underlying ontological problem.

    The value of this in the context of your problem? I’m not sure. Perhaps I’m suggesting that you might be getting caught up in another misreading of the Kripke position, one that fails to come to terms with the core of Kripke’s problem. I’m not sure … Perhaps I’m suggesting, as I seem to do time and again, that it is the ontological problem that should be the focus of all attempts to deal with Kripke, and that it should be realised that there is no ‘solution’ of any kind available because language doesn’t have the kind of ontological nature that he assumes … Perhaps, in your case, there is a reason to read Derrida …

  6. I think we are on the same page, as of yesterday at least. I think I realised what make Kripke’s solution ‘sceptical’ is that it is an epistemological solution to an ontological problem (which I think explains why some people are unhappy with it). This only really became clear after reading more about contextualism, which basically tells us when it is ok to say “I know X” (epistemological status), but bugger-all about whether or not there is an “X” that actually exists to “know” (ontological status). Interestingly, in a odd reflection of how theorists often thought that Kripke’s probelm was epistemological, many people writing about epistemic contextualism come very close to assigning ontological status to its use as a solution to empistemic issues.

  7. MH said

    I’m sure that a great deal of the issue with Kripke’s solution arises from the fact that it is not an ontological solution – in particular, I feel that Kripke’s own disdain for the solution is due to the fact that it is not onological.

    The question emerges – how does this play out for your own work?

  8. I’m not sure, except to say that no one has ever really put the whole epistemic/ontological division plainly in front of me, I’d never seen it clearly stated any where.

    Be that as it may, it does help in the overall project of dividing these questions up into their component parts, which might help settle a bit of confusion. For example I hope that there might be the possibility of assigning some ontological status to what kind of things can ‘mean’ things by their utterences, though I’m not totally sure of this yet.

  9. MH said

    It would be a start …

  10. Well yes, that it is. At least I think I understand the problem a bit better now. Though I am troubled by the validity of deducing or infering the ontological status of things based on the epistemological status of other things. It’s probably nothing, but I can’t help but think that there is something wrong with a step of this kind.

  11. If there is a problem with a step of this kind, could that not in itself demonstrate a flaw enough in what Kripke is asking to be able to dismiss it? Could it be possible that language is simply epistemic, and any desire for an ontological description misguided? If so, then language would probably be insufficient to demonstrate intellegence or what kind of things have minds, which seems easily supportable by what you already have said in previous posts/conversations.

    I’m sure you have already thought of this, so I’m not offering it as a great insight, but out of curiosity as to why this is not the case.

  12. MH said

    Rowan, I think that you’re confusing the various parts of the problem. It is not the ontological status of language as a whole that is at question – dare I say that few would question the fact that language exists, or that words exist – it is the ontological status of meaning, in particular the attribution of meaning to specific words (qua linguistic constructions). This means that we don’t have to say that language as a whole is epistemic, but rather that there are ontological structures on which other things hang. One of these other things – the nature of which is uncertain – is meaning.

    Is meaning an epistemological problem? Post Kripke, I think that it is safe to say that meaning is no longer an ontological problem in the sense of trying to solve Kripke’s problem, but I think that it remains an ontological problem in another way. My problem – at this moment – is how to expand upon this point. But while the pair of you chew over this particular contribution, I’ll have time to think.

  13. Ok, I see the errors of my last post, but question hasn’t really been addressed due to bard wording (and not quite knowing what I’m saying). I think my question is probably better worded as:

    If Sam has hit a point where he has two seemingly different problems that he is trying to reconcile, could it be that what has caused the ‘problem’ for others i.e. Kripke, is thinking that they can be? Could it be misguided to ask for an ontological explanation of meaning, if the way language is used can be adequately explained without the concept of ‘meaning?’ If so, then Sam’s suspicion of language use as a qualifier for intelligence or for proof of minds or whatever would be justified.

    Maybe it is the concept of ‘meaning’ that is dubious, asking for something that doesn’t actually exist short of finding what parts of the brain fire when you intend to say certain things. Maybe meaning only has recourse to language it self, in which case it seems asking for an ontological basis for meaning is tantamount to an ontological basis for language, which need not have minds involved at all. To demonstrate something ‘means’ something is asking, does it have thought to be articulated? This is a very different, and language unrelated problem.

  14. This post has been removed by the author.

  15. This is probably a clearer and less mistake riddled expression of what I am trying to ask:

    Is what Kripke wants to ask is ‘what motivation exists to use language?’ This is a very different question as to how do we establish meaning in language, which is more than adequately explained by Wittgenstein’s theory of language use. ‘Meaning’ is therefore the conglomerate of knowing language with the intent to use it. How we know language is not a problem, and as such becomes superfluous, leaving only the issue of intent, which might well be asked of any motivated action.

    What Sam or Kripke needs to do is to find out by what fact we can know we have minds, or that minds exist. A little Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am’ might give us a way of saying ‘I have a mind’, but this does not establish other minds, or what is the fact by which I am thinking.

    The articulation of these thoughts through language might appear to allow some insight into this nature of thinking, particularly if you consider we arrange our thoughts through language and that by the fact that we can communicate to others in such a way that they may receive and understand our thoughts. All it demonstrates is that we know a language and so does something else. This is why a computer may use language and convey a meaningful sentence without having a mind. A vehicle for the communication and arrangement of thoughts does nothing to understand by virtue of what that thought exists.

  16. MH said

    I’m not sure about Samwise, but I’ve some difficulty in grasping exactly what you’re saying.

    Two points:

    Firstly, are you asking or claiming that Kripke wants to ask ‘what motivation exists to use language?’ If the former, I would say that I doubt very much that Kripke proposes such a question. If the latter, then I would have to question your reading of Kripke’s position regarding Wittgenstein. If you could set it out further – as you should be able to given that you’re allegedly working on Kripke presently – that might illucidate where we differ. My reason, for your consideration, is that the question of what motivates language use is best left to the human sciences than the speculations of philosophers of language. (I assume that you would concur with that point, given quantification.)

    Secondly, I think that you are onto something in regard to the Cartesian element of the post. I spent much of the course last year returning to Descartes in a hapless attempt at finding some way out of the problem. I’m not sure how Samuel would reply to your proposition, but there could be some merit in its further consideration. But it would be helpful if you could set out more clearly. I’m aware that may not be easy (but it could help you with you’re Kripke paper.)

  17. I am aware that Kripke is asking a very different question to the one I have proposed that he might be asking. My question ‘what motivation exists to use language’ is asking, if knowledge of language is redundant to understanding ‘meaning’ because it is simply a vehicle for giving shape to meaning, then the search for ‘the fact in virtue of which we mean x’ simply becomes a question of why did we seek to communicate rather than why we communicated the way we did. The ‘meaning’ component seems irrelevant to the ‘mind’ component if language is treated as Kripke does in the sceptical solution.

    This is very possibly a very flawed and misguided idea, and is only being put forward partly out of wanting attention but mostly to have it kicked about so that if there is anything in it, it might be of some use to myself or Sam I guess.

    If it still is not clear what I’m getting at, then I might have to sit down and think hard about it and try to write up something a little clearer.

    I am actually interested to know what Sam may or may not think about it all, as he is kind of the authority on the subject.

  18. MH said

    I’m still feeling a little lost – which is probably more my own fault than anyone else’s presently – but are you inquiring about the role that mind has to play within the language games? Because, if you are, then it appears we have returned to Samuel’s original problem, the only progress having been the spilling of a few pages of words …

    That said, having come at it this way I think that it is a good and worthy question.

  19. You two sure can go on (and on and on) when you want to….

    Well to adress your various concerns, in no particular order:

    I know that ‘Meaning’ as it is applies to words, and ‘Meaning’ as it applies to speakers are two very different things. But this is not obvious to all writing on the subject. Try to think of what I’m doing as exploring what ‘Meaning’ is not, and seeing what is left.What I’m finding, much to no-ones surprise, is that there isn’t much left at all. I can now imagine what it is like to have no ontological status (though I am toying with a third possibility).

    On Rowans aside regarding the Cogito, I agree that it is somewhat related, but I’m not sure I want to go down that path, at this point at least. I mean, can you give me a firm report on the ontological status of the existence of other Minds? I surely can’t, other than by assuming that it is ‘reasonable’ (as Chalmers and other do) to assume that they do exist. And looks where that get us, I’ve made an ass of you and me twice in the last sentence.

    I also agree with Martin in that I’m not looking for the motivation for using language in the broader sense. It’s not a mystery, it works, so we use it.

  20. MH said

    So what happens next?

  21. Adee said

    I dont wish to break your train of thought, but luck is with me and it seems that you have got a some sort of stand still, and so Martin the email address I have of yours no longer works.I wish to know how your doing. I lost my email from lack of use for a couple of month. please write to me with your new email.
    sorry for the intrusion

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