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In philosophy, contextualism describes a collection of views in the philosophy of language which emphasize the context in which an action, utterance, or expression occurs, and argues that, in some important respect, the action, utterance, or expression can only be understood relative to that context. Contextualist views hold that philosophically controversial concepts, such as "meaning P," "knowing that P," "having a reason to A," and possibly even "being true" or "being right" only have meaning relative to a specified context. Some philosophers hold that context-dependence may lead to relativism; nevertheless, contextualist views are increasingly popular within philosophy.

In ethics, "contextualist" views are most closely associated with situational ethics, or with moral relativism.

Methodologies for empirical research in criminology have developed Comparative contextual analysis.



In epistemology, contextualism is the treatment of the word 'knows' as context-sensitive. Context-sensitive expressions are ones that "express different propositions relative to different contexts of use".[1] For example, some terms that are relatively uncontroversially considered context-sensitive are indexicals, such 'I', 'here', and 'now'. While the word 'I' is the same throughout its contexts of use, what it means, who it refers to, is different depending on who utters the word. Similarly, the contextualist argues that the word 'knows' is context-sensitive. Thus, contextualism in epistemology is a semantic thesis about how the word 'knows' gets its meaning, not an epistemological theory.[2] However, it is adopted by several epistemologists to apply its semantic implications to epistemological issues, such as skepticism, the Gettier problem, and the Lottery paradox.

The main tenet of contextualist epistemology, no matter what account of knowledge it is wedded to, is that knowledge attributions are context-sensitive. That is, when we attribute knowledge to someone, what matters is the context in which we use the term 'knowledge'. If we use it in everyday conversational contexts, the contextualist maintains, we can save most of the knowledge we think we have from skeptical hypotheses. If the term 'knowledge' is used when skeptical hypotheses are being considered, then the utterances regarding knowledge that a person has are false. It is important to note that this theory does not allow that someone can have knowledge at one moment and not the other, for this would hardly be a satisfying epistemological answer. What contexutalism entails is that in one context an utterance of a knowledge attribution can be true, and in a context with higher standards for knowledge, the same statement can be false. This happens in the same way that 'I' can correctly be used (by different people) to refer to differnt people at the same time.

Thus, the standards for attributing knowledge to someone, the contexualist claims, vary from one user's context to the next. Thus, if I say "John knows that his car is in front of him", the utterance is true if and only if (1) John believes that his car is in front of him, (2) the car is in fact in front of him, and (3) John meets the epistemic standards that my (the speaker's) context selects. This is a loose contextualist account of knowledge, and there are many significantly different theories of knowledge that can fit this contextualist template and thereby come in a contextualist form.

For instance, an evidentialist account of knowledge can be an instance of contextualism if it's held that strength of justification is a contextually varying matter. And one who accepts a relevant alternatives account of knowledge — on which c — can be a contextualist by holding that what range of alternatives are relevant is sensitive to conversational context. DeRose adopts a type of modal or "safety" (as it has since come to be known) account on which knowledge is a matter of one's belief as to whether or not p is the case matching the fact of the matter, not only in the actual world, but also in the sufficiently close possible worlds: Knowledge amounts to there being no "nearby" worlds in which one goes wrong with respect to p. But how close is sufficiently close? It's here that DeRose takes the modal account of knowledge in a contextualist direction, for the range of "epistemically relevant worlds" is what varies with context: In high standards contexts one's belief must match the fact of the matter through a much wider range of worlds than is relevant to low standards contexts.


Contextualist accounts of knowledge became increasingly popular toward the end of the 20th century as responses to the problem of skepticism. Along with the problem of skepticism, Contextualist theory can be used to explain more mundane skeptical possibilities, including the so-called lottery paradox. The claim, attributed to Stewart Cohen, Fred Dretske, Gail Stine, David Lewis, and more recently, Keith DeRose, Michael Williams and others, is that the word 'knowledge' is a sort of indexical.

However, contextualist epistemology has been criticized by several philosophers. Contextualism is opposed to any general form of Invariatism, which claims that knowledge is not context-sensitive (i.e. it is invariant). More recent criticism has been in the form of rival theories, including Subject-Sensitive Invariatism (SSI), mainly due to the work of John Hawthorne (2004), and Interest-relative Invariantism (IRI), due to Jason Stanley (2005). SSI claims that it is the context of the subject of the knowledge attribution that determines the epistemic standards, whereas Contextualism maintains it is the attributor. IRI, on the other hand, argues that it is the context of the practical interest's of the subject of the knowledge attribution that determines the epistemic standards. Stanley writes that bare IRI is "simply the claim that whether or not someone knows that p may be determined in part by practical facts about the subject's environment."[3] (However, it should be noted that "contextualism" is a misnomer for either form of Invariantism, since "Contextualism" among epistemologists is considered to be restricted to a claim about the context-sensitivity of knowledge attributions (or the word "knows"). Thus, any view which maintains that something other than knowledge attributions are context-sensitive is not, strictly speaking, a form of Contextualism.)


  1. Stanley (2005), p. 16.
  2. Stanley (2005), p. 17.
  3. Stanley (2005), p. 85.

References and further readingEdit

  • Annis, David. 1978. "A Contextualist Theory of Epistemic Justification", in American Philosophical Quarterly, 15: 213-219.
  • Cappelen, H. & Lepore, E. 2005. Insensitive Semantics: A Defense of Semantic Minimalism and Speech Act Pluralism, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Cohen, Stewart. 1998. "Contextualist Solutions to Epistemological Problems: Scepticism, Gettier, and the Lottery." Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 76: 289-306.
  • Cohen Stewart. 1999. "Contextualism, Skepticism, and Reasons", in Tomberlin 1999.
  • DeRose, Keith. 1992. "Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 15: 213-19.
  • DeRose, Keith. 1999. "Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense", in Greco and Sosa 1999.
  • Feldman, Richard. 1999. "Contextualism and Skepticism", in Tomberlin 1999.
  • Greco, J. & Sosa, E. 1999. Blackwell Guide to Epistomology, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Hawthorne, John. 2004. Knowledge and Lotteries, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Schiffer, Stephen. 1996. "Contextualist Solutions to Scepticism", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 96:317-33.
  • Stanley, Jason. 2005. Knowledge and Practical Interests. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Tomberlin, James (ed.). 1999. Philosophical Perspectives 13, Epistemology, Blackwell Publishing.

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