Contextualism describes a collection of views in philosophy 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.[1] 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[2] hold that context-dependence may lead to relativism;[3] nevertheless, contextualist views are increasingly popular within philosophy.[1]

In ethics, "contextualist" views are often closely associated with situational ethics, or with moral relativism.[4]

Contextualism in architecture is a theory of design wherein modern (not be confused with modernism) building types are harmonized with urban forms usual to a traditional city.[5]



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".[6] For example, some terms that are relatively uncontroversially considered context-sensitive are indexicals, such as 'I', 'here', and 'now'. While the word 'I' has a constant linguistic meaning in all contexts of use, whom it refers to varies with context. Similarly, epistemic contextualists argue that the word 'knows' is context sensitive, expressing different relations in some different contexts.

Contextualism was introduced, in part, in order to undermine skeptical arguments that have this basic structure:

  1. I don't know that I am not in a skeptical scenario H (e.g., I'm not a brain in a vat)
  2. If I don't know that H is not the case, then I don't know an ordinary proposition O (e.g., I have hands)
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, I don't know O

Contextualist solution is not to deny any premise, nor to say that the argument does not follow, but link the truth value of (3) to the context, and say that we can refuse (3) in context—like everyday conversational context—where we have different requirements to say we know.

The main tenet of contextualist epistemology, no matter what account of knowledge it is wedded to, is that knowledge attributions are context-sensitive. Then the truth values of out term "know" depend on the context in which it is used . We can realize that in the context in which the standards to claim truthfully knowledge are so high—e. e., in skeptical context—if we said something like 'I know that I have hands' then this statement would be false. Nevertheless, if we utter the same proposition in an ordinary context—e.g., in a cafe with friends--, where lower standards are in place , the statement would be truth, even more, it's negation would be false. So, only when we participate in philosophical discourses of the skeptical sort, do we seem to lose our knowledge. However, once we leave the skeptical context, we can truthfully say we have knowledge.

That is, when we attribute knowledge to someone, the context in which we use the term 'knowledge' determines the standards relative to which "knowledge" is being attributed (or denied). If we use it in everyday conversational contexts, the contextualist maintains, most of our claims to "know" things are true, despite skeptic's attempts to show we know little or nothing. But if the term 'knowledge' is used when skeptical hypotheses are being discussed, we count as "knowing" very little, if anything. Contextualists use this to explain why skeptical arguments can be persuasive, while at the same time protecting the correctness of our ordinary claims to "know" things. 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 contextualism 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 different people at the same time.

What varies with context is how well-positioned a subject must be with respect to a proposition to count as "knowing" it. Contextualism in epistemology then is a semantic thesis about how 'knows' works in English, not a theory of what knowledge, justification, or strength of epistemic position consists in.[7] However, epistemologists combine contextualism with views about what knowledge is to address epistemological puzzles and issues, such as skepticism, the Gettier problem, and the Lottery paradox.

Contextualist accounts of knowledge became increasingly popular toward the end of the 20th century, particularly as responses to the problem of skepticism. Contemporary contextualists include Michael Blome-Tillmann, Michael Williams, Stewart Cohen, Keith DeRose, David Lewis, Gail Stine, and George Mattey.

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 alternative's account of knowledge 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.


It is claimed that neurophilosophy has the goal of contextualizing. "We must contextualize questions usually dealt with in the physical and epistemological domains into the context of the empirical domain, the domain of observation in third-person perspective." "Rather than approaching the metaphysical and epistemological issues [about the nature and features of brain and mind] from a mind-based (as in traditional philosophy) or brain-reductive (as in neuroscience) perspective, we therefore pursue a brain-based strategy and thus a non-reductive neurophilosophy." "The various arguments against the material or lphysicalistic view of consciousness...are directly compared with the empirical data and are thus put into the empirical, that is, neuroscientific context of consciousness."[8]


However, contextualist epistemology has been criticized by several philosophers. Contextualism is opposed to any general form of Invariantism, 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 Invariantism (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 interests 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."[9] ("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.) DeRose (2009) responds to recent attacks on contextualism, and argues that contextualism is superior to these recent rivals.

An alternative to contextualism called contrastivism has been proposed by Jonathan Schaffer. Contrastivism, like contextualism, uses semantic approaches to tackle the problem of skepticism.[10]

Experimental research

Recent work in the new field of experimental philosophy has taken an empirical approach to testing the claims of contextualism and related views. This research has proceeded by conducting experiments in which ordinary non-philosophers are presented with vignettes which involve a knowledge ascription. Participants are then asked to report on the status of that knowledge ascription. The studies address contextualism by varying the context of the knowledge ascription, e.g., how important it is that the agent in the vignette has accurate knowledge.

In the studies completed up to this point, no support for contextualism has been found.[11] This critique of contextualism can be summed up as: stakes have no impact on evidence. More specifically, non-philosophical intuitions about knowledge attributions are not affected by the importance to the potential knower of the accuracy of that knowledge. Some may argue that these empirical studies for the most part have not been well designed for testing contextualism, which claims that the context of the attributor of "knowledge" affects the epistemic standards that govern their claims. Because most of the empirical studies don't vary the stakes for the attributor, but for the subject being described, these studies are more relevant to the evaluation of John Hawthorne's "Subject-Sensitive Invariantism" or Jason Stanley's "Interest-Relative Invariantism"—views on which the stakes for the putative subject of knowledge can affect whether that subject knows—than they are of contextualism. However, Feltz & Zarpentine (forthcoming) have tested the stakes for both the subject and the attributor, and the results are not in keeping with contextualism. Experimental work continues to be done on this topic.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b Price (2008).
  2. ^ Feldman (1999).
  3. ^ Mackie (1977)
  4. ^ Timmons (1998).
  5. ^ Jencks, p. 78-79
  6. ^ Stanley (2005), p. 16.
  7. ^ Stanley (2005), p. 17.
  8. ^ Northoff, Georg (2014) p. 351
  9. ^ Stanley (2005), p. 85.
  10. ^ Schaffer (2004).
  11. ^ See Feltz and Zarpentine (2010), May, Sinnott-Armstrong, Hull, and Zimmerman (2010), and Buckwatler (2010).
  12. ^ See, for example, Schaffer and Knobe (2011).

References and further reading

  • Annis, David. 1978. "A Contextualist Theory of Epistemic Justification", in American Philosophical Quarterly, 15: 213-219.
  • Buckwalter, Wesley (2010). "Knowledge Isn't Closed on Saturday: A Study in Ordinary Language". Review of Philosophy and Psychology. 1 (3): 395–406. doi:10.1007/s13164-010-0030-3.
  • Cappelen, H. & Lepore, E. 2005. Insensitive Semantics: A Defense of Semantic Minimalism and Speech Act Pluralism, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Cohen, Stuart. 1998. "Contextualist Solutions to Epistemological Problems: Scepticism, Gettier, and the Lottery." Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 76: 289-306.
  • Cohen Stuart. 1999. "Contextualism, Skepticism, and Reasons", in Tomberlin 1999.
  • DeRose, Keith. 1992. "Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52: 913-929.
  • DeRose, Keith. 1995. "Solving the Skeptical Problem," Philosophical Review 104: 1-52.
  • DeRose, Keith. 1999. "Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense", in Greco and Sosa 1999.
  • DeRose, Keith. 2002. "Assertion, Knowledge, and Context," Philosophical Review 111: 167-203.
  • DeRose, Keith. 2009. The Case for Contextualism: Knowledge, Skepticism and Context, Vol. 1, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Feldman, Richard. 1999. "Contextualism and Skepticism", in Tomberlin 1999.
  • Feltz, Adam; Zarpentine, Chris (2010). "Do You Know More When It Matters Less?". Philosophical Psychology. 23 (5): 683–706. CiteSeerX doi:10.1080/09515089.2010.514572.
  • Greco, J. & Sosa, E. 1999. Blackwell Guide to Epistemology, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Hawthorne, John. 2004. Knowledge and Lotteries, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Jencks, Charles (2002). New Paradigm In Architecture (7th ed.). Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-09512-8.
  • Mackie, J.L. 1977, "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong", Viking Press, ISBN 0-14-013558-8.
  • May, Joshua, Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, Hull, Jay G. & Zimmerman, Aaron. 2010. "Practical Interests, Relevant Alternatives, and Knowledge Attributions: An Empirical Study", Review of Philosophy and Psychology (formerly European Review of Philosophy), special issue on Psychology and Experimental Philosophy ed. by Edouard Machery, Tania Lombrozo, & Joshua Knobe, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 265–273.
  • Northoff, Georg (2014). "Neurophilosophy of consciousness: from mind to consciousness". Minding the Brain: A Guide to Philosophy and Neuroscience. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 351. ISBN 9781137406057.
  • Price, A. W. 2008. ' 'Contextuality in Practical Reason' ', Oxford University Press.
  • Schaffer, Jonathan; Knobe, Joshua (2011). "Contrastive Knowledge Surveyed". Nous. 46 (4): 675–708. CiteSeerX doi:10.1111/j.1468-0068.2010.00795.x.
  • Schaffer, Jonathan. 2004. "From Contextualism to Contrastivism," Philosophical Studies 119: 73-103.
  • 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.
  • Timmons Mark, 1998 "Morality Without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism Oxford University Press US.
  • Tomberlin, James (ed.). 1999. Philosophical Perspectives 13, Epistemology, Blackwell Publishing.

External links

Authorial intent

In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author's intent as it is encoded in their work. Authorial intentionalism is the view, according to which an author's intentions should constrain the ways in which it is properly interpreted.

Context principle

In the philosophy of language, the context principle is a form of semantic holism holding that a philosopher should "never ... ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition" (Frege [1884/1980] x).

Contextual architecture

Contextual architecture, also known as Contextualism is a philosophical approach in architectural theory that refers to the designing of a structure in response to the literal and abstract characteristics of the environment in which it is built. Contextual architecture contrasts modernism which value the imposition of their own characteristics and values upon the built environment.Contextual architecture is usually divided into three categories: vernacular architecture, regional architecture, and critical regionalism.


Contextualization may refer to:

Contextualization (Bible translation), the process of contextualising the biblical message as perceived in the missionary mandate originated by Jesus

Contextualization (computer science), an initialization phase setting or overriding properties having unknown or default values at the time of template creation

Contextualization (sociolinguistics), the use of language and discourse to signal relevant aspects of an interactional or communicative situation

Contextualism, a collection of views in philosophy which argue that actions or expressions can only be understood in context


Contrastivism, or the contrast theory of meaning, is an epistemological theory proposed by Jonathan Schaffer that suggests that knowledge attributions have a ternary structure of the form 'S knows that p rather than q'. This is in contrast to the traditional view whereby knowledge attributions have a binary structure of the form 'S knows that p'. Contrastivism was suggested as an alternative to contextualism. Both are semantic theories that try to explain skepticism using semantic methods.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong proposed in a paper titled "A Contrastivist Manifesto" a variant of contrastivism that, he argues, differs from contextualism, invariantism, and Schaffer's contrastivism.

Ernest Gellner in Words and Things "terms derive their meaning from the fact that there are or could be things which fall under them and that there are others which do not." (Emphasis in original.)

Functional contextualism

Functional contextualism is a modern philosophy of science rooted in philosophical pragmatism and contextualism. It is most actively developed in behavioral science in general and the field of behavior analysis and contextual behavioral science in particular (see the entry for the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science). Functional contextualism serves as the basis of a theory of language known as relational frame theory and its most prominent application, acceptance and commitment therapy. It is an extension and contextualistic interpretation of B.F. Skinner's radical behaviorism first delineated by Steven C. Hayes which emphasizes the importance of predicting and influencing psychological events (including thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) with precision, scope, and depth, by focusing on manipulable variables in their context.

Hierarchical epistemology

Hierarchical epistemology is a theory of knowledge which posits that beings have different access to reality depending on their ontological rank.

Information source

An information source is a person, thing, or place from which information comes, arises, or is obtained. Information souces can be known as primary or secondary. That source might then inform a person about something or provide knowledge about it. Information sources are divided into separate distinct categories, primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on.

Keith DeRose

Keith DeRose (born April 24, 1962) is an American philosopher teaching at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he is currently Allison Foundation Professor of Philosophy. He taught previously at New York University and Rice University. His primary interests include epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, and history of modern philosophy. He is best known for his work on contextualism in epistemology, especially as a response to the traditional problem of skepticism.

Nicla Vassallo

Nicla Vassallo (born 1963), is an Italian philosopher with research and teaching interests in epistemology, philosophy of knowledge, theoretical philosophy, as well as gender and sexuality studies. She is currently a Full Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Genova, Italy.

Peter Clewes

Peter Clewes is a Canadian architect and the principal of the Toronto-based firm architectsAlliance. He has been one of the leading architects in the condo boom that has reshaped Toronto in the first decade of the 21st century. His projects include SP!RE, Casa Condominio Residenza, Murano, Burano, X Condominium, 20 Niagara, Ideal Lofts, and MoZo. He most often works for Howard Cohen of Context Developments.

Clewes designed buildings can be described as neomodern. He is notable for creating unadorned towers with large expanses of glass and well thought out interior layouts. He is a critic of neo-historical and postmodern structures, arguing there is no reason to force tiny windows and aged styles when modern technology can create expansive floor to ceiling windows. He has argued forcefully against contextualism, and has not employed it for projects such as his Distillery District designs. He told The Globe and Mail "We need to create buildings of our time. Architecture is a record of where a city and a culture was at a particular time." His designs have been well received by customers and critics. Christopher Hume is one of his strongest advocates. Hume, the architecture critic for the Toronto Star, has given rare A ratings to several of Clewes' designs and has called him "the leading condo designer of his generation"Originally from Montreal, Clewes studied at the University of Waterloo. From university he gained a co-op placement with the renowned Arthur Erickson. He then joined Erickson's firm in Toronto. With Erickson he participated in a number of major projects, including the Canadian Embassy in Washington. In 1986, he left to help form a separate practice, Wallman Clewes Bergman. Wallman Clewes Bergman merged with Van Nostrand DiCastri Architects in 1999 to form architectsAlliance. Clewes has taught at the University of Toronto and is a currently a member of the Toronto Waterfront Design Review Panel.

Peter Ludlow

Peter Ludlow (; born January 16, 1957), who also writes under the pseudonym Urizenus Sklar, is an American philosopher of language. He is noted for interdisciplinary work on the interface of linguistics and philosophy—in particular on the philosophical foundations of Noam Chomsky's theory of generative linguistics and on the foundations of the theory of meaning in linguistic semantics. He has worked on the application of analytic philosophy of language to topics in epistemology, metaphysics, and logic, among other areas.

Ludlow has also established a research program outside of philosophy and linguistics. Here, his research areas include conceptual issues in cyberspace, particularly questions about cyber-rights and the emergence of laws and governance structures in and for virtual communities, including online games, and as such he is also noted for influential contributions to legal informatics. In recent years Ludlow has written nonacademic essays on hacktivist culture and related phenomena such as WikiLeaks.

Ludlow has taught as a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan, the University of Toronto and Northwestern University, where he was the John Evans Professor in Moral and Intellectual Philosophy. In May 2015, Ludlow resigned his position at Northwestern after a university disciplinary body found that "he had engaged in sexual harassment involving two students."

Providence County Courthouse

The Providence County Courthouse (also known as the Frank Licht Judicial Complex) is a Georgian-styled building in the College Hill neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. At a height of 216 ft (66 m), it is the 11th-tallest building in the city.

Architectural historian McKenzie Woodward lauds the building for its contextualism, which defers in its design to the buildings surrounding. Woodward also commends the fragmentation of the building's large mass into "visually digestible units". The building contains the state's court of last resort, the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and the local trial court, the Providence County Superior Court.

Raymond Geuss

Raymond Geuss (; born 1946), Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, is a political philosopher and scholar of 19th and 20th century European philosophy. Geuss is primarily known for three reasons: his early account of ideology critique in The Idea of a Critical Theory; a recent collection of works instrumental to the emergence of Political Realism in Anglophone political philosophy over the last decade, including Philosophy and Real Politics; and a variety of free-standing essays on issues including aesthetics, Nietzsche, contextualism, phenomenology, intellectual history, culture and ancient philosophy.

Relevant alternatives theory

Relevant alternatives theory (RAT) is an epistemological theory of knowledge, according to which to know some proposition p one must be able to rule out all the relevant alternatives to p.

Semiotic anthropology

The phrase "semiotic anthropology" was first used by Milton Singer (1978). Singer's work brought together the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce and Roman Jakobson with theoretical streams that had long been flowing in and around the University of Chicago, where Singer taught. In the late 1970s, Michael Silverstein, a young student of Jakobson's at Harvard University, joined Singer in Chicago's Department of Anthropology. Since that time, anthropological work inspired by Peirce's semiotic have proliferated, in part as students of Singer and Silverstein have spread out across the country, developing semiotic-anthropological agendas of their own.

Semiotic anthropology has its precursor in Malinowski's contextualism (which may be called anthropological semantics), which was later resumed by John Rupert Firth. Anthropological approaches to semantics are alternative to the three major types of semantics approaches: linguistic semantics, logical semantics, and general semantics. Other independent approaches to semantics are philosophical semantics and psychological semantics.Elizabeth Mertz has recently reviewed the burgeoning literature in semiotic anthropology (2007).

Synoptic philosophy

Synoptic philosophy comes from the Greek word συνοπτικός synoptikos ("seeing everything together") and together with the word philosophy, means the love of wisdom emerging from a coherent understanding of everything together.Phenomenology, attempting to bracket egocentrism, appears to be more synoptic than analytic philosophy, logical atomism and logical positivism. Wilfrid Sellars (1962) used the term 'synoptic'. The Anglo-American philosophy made a synoptic, synthetic turn explicitly during the last quarter of the last century, giving birth or rebirth to absolute idealism, phenomenology, poststructuralism, psychologism, historicism, contextualism, holism, and the like.

World Hypotheses

World Hypotheses: a study in evidence (also known as World Hypotheses: Prolegomena to systematic philosophy and a complete survey of metaphysics) is a book written by Stephen Pepper, published in 1942.

In World Hypotheses, Pepper demonstrates the error of logical positivism, that there is no such thing as data free from interpretation, and that root metaphors are necessary in epistemology. In other words, objectivity is a myth because there is no such thing as pure, objective fact. Consequently, an analysis is necessary to understand how to interpret these 'facts.' Pepper does so by developing the "[root metaphor method, ...] and outlines what he considers to be four basically adequate world hypotheses (world views or conceptual systems): formism, mechanism, contextualism, and organicism." He identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each of the world hypotheses as well as the paradoxical and sometimes mystifying effects of the effort to synthesize them.

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Skeptical hypotheses

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