You Can’t Sit With Us.

Duncan Pritchard talks about Contextualism in the 15th chapter of his book, “What Is This Thing Called Knowledge.” Contextualism is this fascinating theory where the key to resolving the skeptical problem lies in recognizing that knowledge us a highly context-sensitive notion (Pritchard, 176).  Everything is relative to the statement said such as, shape, size, color, geography, etc. The idea of knowledge shifts depending on outside factors.

For example, the fact that a refrigerator may be empty has the connotation that it is empty of food. However, the refrigerator isn’t empty of air or light. Depending on what exactly you are thinking or to whom you are speaking to, the mind works differently. For me personally, I would think that the refrigerator is empty of the foods that I like. Another example that Pritchard uses is a table being flat. If a table is flat, there is a chance that there are no dents but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any air bubbles, bumps, or ridge. For me, a flat table can’t be made of wood because I think of glass when I think of a flat table and not the wood table in my backyard that gives me splinters.

My title is obviously from the infamous movie, Mean Girls. This movie is about four popular girls in high school that basically controlled the atmosphere of an entire school based off of their social status. But when using contextualism, what exactly makes a person popular?  In the area that these girls lived in, we can start by the physical and monetary backgrounds. All four of them are beautiful and were able to afford many expensive items. What defines them as being beautiful? Where these girls were from, being skinny and wearing skimpy clothing is what made them stand out from all the other people. But now if we were in Somalia, the women who are beautiful are those who keep themselves conserved in full body robes and headpieces and were able to dance well with a good layer of fat on them. These same four girls wouldn’t even be looked at twice in a positive way if they lived in Somalia. Contextualism is a valid theory because saying someone is beautiful really does depend on outside factors. In this specific example, geography plays a huge role when describing the adjective, “beautiful” and how it ties into popularity.

Now just because I agree doesn’t mean that there aren’t other arguments against this theory. The first is skepticism, and the second is Mooreanism. Both skeptics and Mooreans maintain that the standards for knowledge do not shift. (Tim, ‘Contextualism in Epsitemomlogy’). For skepticism, there is no support that for everything that you do in the world you live in and there is also no support that you aren’t in a deceived world. Skepticism has nothing to do with outside influences like contextualism and neither does Mooreanism. Mooreans often take a different tack and try to show how we can know the denials of skeptical hypothesis even though we are unable to tell such cases apart from counterpart non-deceived cases(Pritchard, 175).

Contextualism is really just a response to the skeptical problem in a way that is affected by outside influences and circumstances. There are many factors taken into consideration when making an argument. An argument about something in one topic may not work somewhere else with someone else. Everything is relative and knowledge is a radically context-sensitive notion. I agree with contextualism and I believe that almost everything one person says must be said to a certain audience to be valid.

Other Sources:

Contextualism in Epistemology (Tim Black):


7 thoughts on “You Can’t Sit With Us.

  1. In regards to the topic of contextualism, I feel as if it is a very reasonable and logical theory, and therefore agree with the reading. After all, it makes sense to conclude that some ideas/standards are only valid based on the nature of the environment and people around them, because essentially everything is highly contingent on the context.
    That being said, I’d like to offer my own example of contextualism that is perhaps more relevant to us college students. Take the concept of intelligence, for instance. Intelligence, while it is something that is constantly trying to be standardized, is something that can be seen as highly relative. As a student at Emory, I’ve come to realize that most people measure intelligence by one’s GPA, class rank, and IQ. This is so because many at an academically rigorous institution like Emory, grades in core classes seem to be a major factor in determining how smart someone is, thus laying down the meaning of intelligence relative to Emory. However, at say, a performing arts college, intelligence may be measured using alternate factors, therefore redefining the context. For instance, at a performing arts college, one’s intelligence may be based of one’s ability to sing/dance/play whatever instrument – not grades, like at Emory. Again, this is because the contexts for each basis of measurement are different at both institutions, thereby illustrating the theory of contextualism and nature of knowledge to be relative.

    1. What I thought was interesting from the reading was that contextualists have to be careful with what conclusions they draw from a situation. In the example on page 178, Pritchard mentions that science has already taught us that a table cannot be flat and an area cannot be empty. The area will always have air because vacuums do not exist in nature on the earth. Even with contextualism, there will always be problems claiming something. I think that Mooreanism is the best way to answer any type of skeptical response by simply acknowledging skeptics responses and choosing to move forward.

  2. I would like to think I am a contextualist after reading the chapter. It makes more sense to me that knowledge can have its own meaning and one kind of knowledge or answer can be just as valid depending on context and perspective. I do believe there are some hard facts that a majority of people would consider common knowledge, but as far larger conceptual ideas that can differ greatly from culture to culture, it think contextualism would fit better in this circumstance. For example, the Piraha culture only has words for few and many, but if we were to show them five apples compared to three apples and they give a different answer than someone who can use numbers would based on their concept and context of numbers, they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong or not “know” the larger concept of numbers. If someone in a culture has more words for snow than our American culture, the Eskimo for example, that doesn’t mean if we tell them it’s snowing and they say that it’s sleeting one is wrong and one is right. It all depends on context and what is exactly being ask and how one can perceive it. I do believe that there are some things that contextualism cannot answer like hard facts and hard science, but there is more to knowledge than just hard facts. Knowledge can be subjective and can vary depending on context and perception. Morals and ethics are key examples of this type of knowledge that I think contextualism starts to hit. Especially with your example of what beauty is and what is popular and what is not, is a kind of cultural knowledge and just as you said, it all depends on the context. Considering all the texts we read about knowledge, I do believe it is multifaceted and it cannot be answered with one single theory.

  3. I found this post really interesting because of the examples you used to make your claim: “Contextualism is a valid theory because saying someone is beautiful really does depend on outside factors. In this specific example, geography plays a huge role when describing the adjective, “beautiful” and how it ties into popularity.”In contextualism, I think it is important to be cautious about the analogies that are used because this theory is “highly context sensitive.” I agree with the fact that you think that beauty is a vague term and it is relative to where in the world you are.

  4. Your Mean Girls reference was very interesting. Beauty is relative and (as it is commonly stated) is in the eye of the beholder. Most things can of course change depending on the context. I took contextualism to simply mean that one does not have to take things literally and must remain aware of the situation and environment that one exists in. In the way that I have understood contextualism, I would say that I agree with it but to an extent. Statements cannot be taken too literally (as in your refrigerator example and also when saying that a table is “flat”). However, knowledge is not relative. While context is important, two individuals cannot both claim to know contradictory statements. If I misunderstood you, please let me know but your Mean Girls reference gave the impression that individuals can claim to know opposing concepts. For example, one individual can claim that Regina George is beautiful while another person in a different environment can have the opposing idea that she isn’t beautiful. While beauty operates in this way, I do not think that knowledge functions in the same manner. Context is important to understand an individual’s claim to knowledge but I do not think it can change whether or not one knows something.

  5. I agree with your statement on contextualism, and I want to add to that by saying that almost any idea or perception about the world could be considered wildly inaccurate by a third party. For example if I’m holding an apple and I perceive it as red, then it is red to me. However a friend, who was taught a similar spectrum of colors in her school with her color of red being slightly darker, might perceive the apple as pink. Context varies wiledly from person to person and place to place making just about every statement one that has radically different context elsewhere in the world. Also, rather than state that I’m a contextualist, I feel I’m more of a Mooreanist. G. E. Moore’s philosophy was to argue against the skeptic as depicted by Pritchard (174) through Moore’s statement ‘we do know that we are not the victims of skeptical hypothesis through our knowledge of mundane things’ (like typing this answer). This Mooreanist approach to things is also how I would rapid to Nozick’s ‘brain in a vat’ claim.

  6. First, I love the Mean Girls reference, because it really does help put things into a simple, relatable pop-culture scenario. I, too, agree with contextualism above any of the other theories we have learned in this class. While I understand how skepticism and Mooreanism work, I cannot accept the fact that knowledge standards do not shift depending upon the circumstances. If this were true, the world would be much more black and white than it is. I think that contextualism allows for all the discrepancy that there is in the world, which is always changing. Contextualism not only applies to the values of different cultures, but also of different time periods. There was once a time when religion was the upmost important ruling factor in life. Knowledge was based on the writings of the bible or the Quran, and most people accepted this to be true. Now, however, contexts are different and more people base knowledge upon science or other influential factors, and therefore things people know to be true now are different than they were hundreds of years ago. I think that contextualism, while it does not give a concrete definition of knowledge, is the most realistic theory we have learned so far.

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