APA Blogging: Jason Stanley, Knowledge and Practical Interests

27 03 2006

I should start this post by pointing out that I haven’t read Stanley’s book, I didn’t have anything to take notes at the session, and all I know about subject-centered invariantism (which I believe is Stanley’s position on knowledge) is what I learned in John MacFarlane’s seminar last year, and occasional discussions with other people. But even given all that, it was quite an interesting session – and other people seem to agree on that, given that it seemed to have the largest audience. (I was sitting on the floor most of the time, with about a dozen other people – there were two other sessions with similar-sized audiences in even smaller rooms, so they were even more crowded.)

Stanley’s position is “invariantism” in that he denies that the situation of the asserter plays any important role in the proposition expressed by “A knows that p” or its truth value (unlike, say, Keith DeRose and others, some of whom suggest that the salience of relevant alternatives in the context of utterance can make “Jane knows that she has hands” go from true (in most contexts) to false (if one has just considered that she has no way to rule out being a brain in a vat)). However, it is “subject-centered”, because having made exactly the same observations, A can know that p while B doesn’t, if something of extreme urgency for B (but not for A) depends on whether p. (Stanley pointed out that there is a connection between “evidence” and “knowledge”, so we have to talk about something more like observations than evidence.)

I don’t remember too many details of the session (though I know I’d like to get a copy of Stephen Schiffer’s handout, since he made a bunch of very interesting points, and seemed to have handed out something like a full transcript of his remarks), but there was one interesting objection raised in the question period by Ryan Wasserman. Jason Stanley had already bitten the bullet and agreed that if John and Jane are on the same airplane, and have the same information about windspeeds and departure time and the like, but Jane has an important talk to give very soon after arrival, then John can know that the plane will arrive on time even though Jane doesn’t. This seems somewhat odd, and Ryan Wasserman pushed it further by pointing out that on Stanley’s position, this can even be possible if Jane has gathered more information about the weather, history of the airline’s performance, and the like.

After Jason Stanley’s response, Delia Graff (who was chairing the session) tried to defuse the worry that the theory makes such predictions by pointing out a related prediction of a related theory. It seems perfectly fine for her to say that her 9-year-old cousin is really really good at playing basketball, and that Ryan Wasserman plays basketball even better than her cousin, but that Ryan Wasserman is not very good at basketball (despite being better than someone that’s really really good at it). The fact that this prediction is perfectly fine for subject-centered invariantism about “good at basketball” (rather than “knows”) seems to support subject-centered invariantism.

At first I agreed with her, but now I think that this piece of evidence actually counts against Stanley’s theory. I think (correct me if I’m wrong) the intuitions suggest that the basketball case sounds much better than the knowledge case. If subject-centered invariantism about both predicates predicts that both should be acceptable, then this suggests that something like subject-centered invariantism may well be true for “good at basketball”, but probably isn’t true about “knows”. If it did apply to both, then in addition to explaining away the intuition in the case of “knows”, Stanley would have to explain why the intuition reappears for the basketball case. Now, it’s possible that such an explanation will emerge (as it will have to if one thinks that subject-centered invariantism is wrong for both predicates, as I think that I do), but it’s quite a convoluted way to get at the data from Stanley’s theory, and starts to disconnect the theory somewhat from the evidence.

Anyway, it’s interesting stuff.




8 responses

28 03 2006

I mysteriously have a copy of Schiffer’s handout, so I can copy it for you when you’re here if you haven’t acquired one before then.

29 03 2006

The tactic that defenders of IRI about knowledge, and in particular Stanley, have taken has to a large extent been the following. What they’ll do is aim to show that i. IRI can at least match contextualism’s benefits, ii. problems for IRI also have natural analogs for contextualism and iii. contextualism faces really terrible problems that IRI neatly avoids.

So even if Wasserman’s point is a good one (and I’m inclined to agree with you that it looks like a real challenge to the view), it’s not clear that’s disasterous for IRI, at least if you think there’s something to the 3 part strategy I mentioned above. That’s because it looks like contextualism has similar committments – often (though not always) one can convert problems for IRI into problems for contextualism by assuming that the subject is also the ascriber. So let John and Jane each self-ascribe knowledge that the plane will arrive on time. Even if Jane has made more pertinent observations, contextualism seems to allow the possibility that Jane’s self-ascription might be false, but John’s true.

29 03 2006

In the interests of consistency, I should say something to reconcile my comments (in the same sentence no less!) that I think that the objection is a real challenge to the view, but that it might not be disasterous. I meant that even if one finds this a deeply counterintuitive consequence of IRI, one might still think it’s not that big a problem if one is signed up to the idea (perhaps slightly taken for granted in Stanley’s book) that the i-ii-iii strategy of trying to do better than contextualism is an appropriate one.

29 03 2006
Kenny Easwaran

But this is where relativism comes in! (Perhaps I just say this because I learned this stuff from John MacFarlane.) The case you give where they both self-ascribe knowledge is only odd if there is one person who says John truly self-ascribes while Jane falsely self-ascribes. If their self-ascriptions are both assessed by the same third-party observer, then relativism (bicontextualism) predicts that they will either both be assessed as true or both be assessed as false, depending on what standards are relevant for the assesser.

Of course, I think “knows” is perhaps a weaker case for the relativist. I think (not knowing the literature much) I’d lean to the position it seemed that Gil Harman supported, of saying that there is an interest-relative component to “knows”, but there is also a contextualist component.

The case above seems to be a case against there being any interest-relative component, but we may have to adopt something like it. However, it would still be nice to have an explanation why it sounds so much better for the “good at basketball” case than for “knows”.

29 03 2006

I have the Gendler/Hawthorne volume with MacFarlane’s paper in it sitting in the dept, but I haven’t had a chance to read it (or indeed, Kit Fine’s paper on procedural postulationism which I’ve been waiting to see in print for over a year now).

Until I’m up to date on the relativism stuff, I’ll just say that I take it that even if contextualists could be relativists as well – and so get out of some otherwise troublesome committments – that Crispin Wright is surely right to stress that its proponents have usually wanted to avoid committment to relativism; while they spurn relativist resources (rightly or wrongly), these cases look just as problematic as for IRI.

About the basketball case, is it really clear that Graff’s dialogue is ‘predicted’ by IRI about ‘good at basketball’? In presenting her version of IRI about vague expressions, Graff stresses that the sharp boundary she posits shifts even when we have fixed the relevant comparison class. So there’s something distinctive about the predictions her account makes about what determines a shift in the location of the boundary – they’re distinctive of her version of invariantism because they can’t simply be put down to shifts in the implicit comparison class.

So one thought, no doubt inchoate, is that a distinctive prediction of IRI about ‘good at basketball’ would be one made after we’ve fixed the relevant comparison class – otherwise we might feel that any invariantist can explain why Graff’s dialogue is ok just by pointing out to a shift of that sort.

If there’s anything in that, then we might say that Graff’s dialogue is ok, not because ‘good at basketball’ is subject-senstive, but just because there’s a shift in comparison class (of the sort that any invariantist can recognise) as the dialogue progresses. In effect, the suggestion is that Graff’s dialogue isn’t really the right sort of case against which to judge IRI.

Hmm, I hope that makes some sense to someone.

30 03 2006
Jason Stanley


I think that too often, people raise objections to IRI of the very same sort that arise for other epistemological theories, but are not normally taken to refute them. Here is an objection parallel to Ryan’s against reliabilism (I owe this point to John Hawthorne). Tortoise travels slowly; he never gets to fake-barn country. All the barns he sees are real barns. Hare lives next door to tortoise. Hare travels quickly, and so is often in fake-barn country. So, according to reliabilism, when Tortoise sees a barn, he knows it’s a barn, but when Hare sees the very same barn, Hare doesn’t know it’s a barn.

In other words, reliabilism predicts that two people with the same evidence for their true belief (barn-like perceptual experience of a genuine barn) can be such that one knows and the other doesn’t, due to other factors. We don’t take the existence of such cases to refute reliabilism, so it’s a bit unfair to take them as refuting IRI.

I’ll post my responses to Schiffer and Harman on my website in the next week or so.

30 03 2006
Jason Stanley

…also, as I said in the session, it’s tough to describe a case of the sort Wasserman wants, since I think that evidence and all related epistemic notions are also interest-relative. So if one person cares more than the other, they won’t share the same evidence. For this reason (as I say in the book), I don’t think that two people can have the same evidence, and one knows and the other doesn’t. For all I know, the same point could apply to the concept of information.

30 03 2006
Kenny Easwaran


I don’t know Graff’s theories at all – just what you said at USC, what she said at Jason’s session, and soon a paper that I plan on reading this weekend. So I don’t really know what her theory would “predict”.


As I think about it more, the fact that “evidence” and possibly “information” and other relevant terms are likely to be bound up in the interest relativity looks like it’s going to largely deal with any version of an objection like this. However, at the same time, there’s still something striking about how “better at basketball” doesn’t end up with the same subject-sensitivity that “good at basketball” might be seen to have. Anyway, it’s an interesting puzzle.

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