Skepticism with regards to claims that are generally accepted;

Skepticism is an approach that questions otherwise accepted
knowledge. Philosophically, skeptical views involve acknowledging and exploring
doubt with regards to claims that are generally accepted; skepticism is
discussed frequently in epistemology, and examines questions of whether or not
a thought, idea, or theory is actually true, such as whether or not God exists
(REFERENCE). Skepticism can be examined with regards to the extent of the doubt
being analysed, or the focus of the doubt. The focus of a doubt is generally
the basis of epistemological skeptics’ views; epistemological skepticism is
concerned with the validity of beliefs and ideas, and whether or not the belief
is rational and justified. Skepticism gives birth to a paradox of sorts,
because one can have a collection of logical beliefs, that, when aggregated,
make no sense rationally or intellectually– leading to questioning the
knowledge that these beliefs were based on. Contextualism is a set of
philosophical views that attempts to solve the skeptical paradox, and in this
paper I will outline the paradox, the contextualist response, and two
criticisms of contextualism.

The skeptical paradox arises from the radical skeptics’
perspective that knowledge and rational belief is impossible to achieve,
because they believe that it impossible to know whether or not something is
true and justified. Their argument is presented in the form of a paradox, with
three distinct issues that show how beliefs can appear to be sensible
individually, but collectively they cannot hold up to epistemic analysis and
fall apart. The first point is that the skeptic believes that one cannot truly
know if a skeptical hypothesis is false; a skeptical hypothesis is one that, if
proven true, would break down previously accepted knowledge that one believed
true. An example of a skeptical hypothesis is Descartes’ malicious demon
concept; this concept suggests that someone could be possessed by a demon, and
made to believe things about the world and themselves that are false, such that
a person with no arms may believe to have arms. The crux of this concept is
that there is no difference in the perceptions of the possessed person and a
person who is living normally, suggesting that one cannot plausibly know
whether or not they are possessed in the first place, and cannot know if their
perceptions are true.

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If one cannot comprehend or identify whether or not a skeptical
hypothesis is false, then one can assume that some of, or all of their
knowledge may be false. For example, a person may believe that they are eating
an ice cream sundae, and believe that they are not possessed by a demon; but
this person would not be able to know if they were possessed by a malicious
demon, and therefore they will not be able to know if they are eating an ice
cream sundae.

The last issue that the paradox brings to light is related, and it
concerns the commonly accepted notion that if one believes something, they know
it to be true. Superficially, this concept seems to be logical– if one
believes that they are sitting and eating an ice cream sundae, then they would
believe that they know that they are sitting and eating the sundae, and at the
surface there is no reason to question this. However, this assertion in tandem
with the prior two presents the skeptical paradox in full: if one cannot
determine whether or not a skeptical hypothesis is false, and if cannot have
the knowledge of whether or not the hypothesis is true and consequently may not
have the knowledge to confirm that the things that they believe are true, then
one also does not have the knowledge to confirm what they believe.

Contextualism, a philosophical viewpoint that is often perceived
as anti-skeptic, takes into account the context surrounding behaviour, ideas,
or events and holds that the only way to truly understand the behaviour, idea
or event is by understanding it relative to the context surrounding it
(REFERENCE). Contextualism holds that knowledge and truth can only be
understood in any meaningful way when examined relative to the context
surrounding them. Contextualists argue that the skeptical paradox is only a
paradox in so far as it exploits how knowledge can be affected by context.
Depending on the conversational context, the standards by which knowledge can
be acquired and  shared, and therefore confirmed or believed, changes. Because contextualists depend on context to accept or
reject knowledge, ideas, or events, it is possible that, from a contextualist
viewpoint, that skepticism can be true in come contexts, and anti-skepticism
can be true in others, depending on the standards of the context. If the
conversational context of a situation involves high standards for knowledge
acquisition and confirmation, then the assertion that one knows very little
(but not necessarily nothing, as a radical skeptical would claim) is true in
that context. Similarly, when the conversational context of a situation
involves low standards on which to judge epistemics, then one can make the
claim that they know what they believe.

Keith DeRose, the American philosopher, is one of the most
prominent voices of contextualism, has produced arguments that are used in much
anti-skeptic discourse in epistemology. If person A, the attributor of
knowledge, says that person S knows P, a contextualist must analyze the
epistemic integrity of this statement based on person A’s conversational
context (DeRose 1995, 4). This suggests that the epistemic integrity, and
therefore the “truth,” of A’s statement changes based on the context of their
claim. DeRose suggests that even if the conversational context changes, one’s
epistemic position (their knowledge, beliefs, etc.) can remain static
regardless of the context shift (DeRose 1995, REFERENCE). He attributes this to
intuition, and suggests that the issue is not that one’s knowledge or beliefs
are false as skeptics would assert, rather it is the epistemic position that is
critiqued: it is one’s epistemic position that is judged based on the standards
of the context that determines whether or not they have knowledge (DeRose 1995,
REFERENCE).

Since it is one’s epistemic position that determines how one can
approach the question of knowledge acquisition and sharing, DeRose presents his
ideas on what makes a certain epistemic position stronger than another with
regards to P. He writes that a strong epistemic position with regards to P
means that S must “have a belief as to whether P is true match the fact of the
matter as to whether P is true, not only in the actual world, but also at the
worlds sufficiently close to the actual world” (DeRose 1995, 34). To understand
this statement, consider the man eating the sundae from earlier– we will refer
to him as Kim. Kim believes that he will eat a sundae tonight, because he has
the knowledge that he eats sundaes on this particular day of the week, that he
has ice cream in his freezer, and believes that it is unlikely that someone
broke into his apartment to eat his ice cream. Josh, a man who is nearly a copy
of Josh, has the same knowledge as Joshua does with regards to his informational
state (he has ice cream in his freezer, he eats sundaes on this particular
evening, etc.), save he also has the additional information that his ice cream
was in his freezer a minute ago because he looked inside to get some ice for
his lemonade. Josh, therefore, has a stronger epistemic position with regards
to P (that is, that he will eat a sundae tonight) than Kim does. Even though
they are both likely to carry this truth on the same worlds, Josh has
information that can carry the truth to one or more additional words; including
in a world where his power goes out and all his ice cream melts in the freezer.

DeRose explains that if S believes P, then S believes in P both in
their world and does not believe it in the worlds where P is actually untrue.
He holds that in any conversational context, there are possible circumstances
(or propositions, O) that could pose an issue to P, and S must be “sensitive”
to these if S truly claims to know P (DeRose 1995, 35). This implies that S
must have the epistemic position that allows them to track the truth of P
across several worlds based on the O that is most pressing in that particular
conversational context, as well as other propositions that S themselves
believes to be true so that the standards of that particular conversational
context are met (DeRose 1995, 35). S may know an O of P, or they may not, then
the standards of S’ epistemic position is questioned, sometimes to the point
that S’ belief in P must be sensitive to a variety of Os for S’ belief to be
considered knowledge, and to be considered true in this context (DeRose 1995,
35-36). Therefore, to a contextualist, the only thing that changes a
conversational context is if Os are added, removed, or changed to become more
demanding than others; the changes in propositions is what adds additional
worlds to consider epistemically (DeRose 1995, 36).

Arguments against the contextualist solution to the skeptical
paradox often target the contextualist idea that the epistemic validity of S’
beliefs changes based on conversational contexts. While one can argue that
knowledge is relative to the person claiming to have that knowledge, and it is
dependent on that sort of context, it does not mean that everyone’s epistemic
position is true. If Josh believes that the ice cream sundae at his ice cream
parlour is priced at $4.99, and Kim believes that the sundae is priced at
$13.99, they simply cannot both be right. A contextualist might argue that one
of them is right in a world where the prices are different.

Another issue with contextualism is that one could argue that it
does not provide a convincing reason for one to dismiss a skeptical hypothesis
as false, making contextualism’s solution to the skeptical paradox essentially
useless. A contextualist response would likely involve the reasoning that one
could have the required knowledge to dismiss a skeptical hypothesis based on
rational thinking. This stance also places skepticism in the position that
skepticism is unquestionably right, and skepticism has neither been universally
accepted as being true, nor have skeptics provided arguments that are free of
flaws.

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