Week 3 – Stanley on contextualism

Another good discussion in week 3. The presentation is here.

Some thoughts which came out of the discussion:

– If Stanley’s argument in section 3 that gradability doesn’t imply context-sensitivity is sound, then it renders section 2 rather superfluous, as that is devoted to arguing that ‘knows’ is not gradable.

– But even if Stanley’s argument in section 3 is sound, his argument against contextualism still looks pretty weak. At most he’s shown that ‘knows’ isn’t contextual in virtue of  ‘justified’ being gradable. But it’s a perfectly consistent position to say that the context-sensitivity of knowledge is of a distinctive kind, different from the context-sensitivity of gradable adjectives. Plausibly, Lewisian contextualism is of this sort.

– Stanley’s argument in section 3 doesn’t look sound to me. It rests strongly on the supposed counterexample of a gradable and non-context sensitive predicate ‘ taller than six feet’. This is meant to be gradable because you can be slightly taller than six feet, or much taller than six feet. But I don’t see that this is enough to make it gradable. Consider the infelicity of ‘very taller than six feet’. My view is that you’re either taller than six feet, or you aren’t. No grades involved. Of course, you can be taller than six feet by a large amount, but this doesn’t make you taller than six feet to a greater degree than someone who is just over the threshold.

– Similar comments apply to ‘possible’, which Stanley takes to be gradable. It’s true that we have the idiom ‘very possible that x’. But we can’t say ‘x is possibler than y’. My view is that ‘probable’ is gradable, but ‘possible’ isn’t.

– It’s not clear what Stanley is using as an individuation-criterion for discourses. He claims that it is plausible that context can be shifted within a sentence for individual terms (eg ‘that butterfly is large, but that elephant isn’t large’). But consider sentences like the following: ‘I know that I have hands, because there is no possible scenario in which I don’t – except of course for a really sceptical one, which is of course a possibility we can’t rule out – so maybe in fact I don’t know that I have hands.’ It looks like the standards of the discourse have changed mid-sentence, which undermines the contrast Stanley wants to draw between the context-sensitivity of gradable adjectives and the context-sensitivity of ‘knows’.

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