Post 4: The Factivity Problem Remains Dissolved

This post concludes coverage of the factivity debate. Brueckner and Buford (2010) fire the last shot. They claim that Baumann’s response, which I covered in post 3, only works because the time-indexing of knowledge-attribution sentences was dropped. Let me explain.

As you may recall, the debate is over premise (3) in the Factivity Problem. The question is: Can Mary know in her demanding context a sentence about Frank’s epistemic status (i.e., that he knows that Mary has hands) is true in Frank’s less demanding context? According to Brueckner and Buford, Mary would have to know that she has hands in order to know whether the sentence about Frank’s epistemic status is true. Given Mary’s evidence and her demanding context, it’s not possible for Mary to know that she has hands; thus, it’s not possible for Mary to know the sentence about Frank’s epistemic status in his context is true.

Baumann claims this response doesn’t work because it requires Mary to have prior knowledge that she has hands independent from, and prior to, her knowing that Frank knows that she has hands. This is false because testimonial knowledge can be given and attained, even within a demanding context. This knowledge allows, for instance, Wiles to know that Fermat’s Last Theorem is true by reading about his results in a newspaper. Wiles had no prior knowledge of the results of Fermat’s Theorem. By analogy, Mary can “read” knowledge of Frank’s epistemic status off Ann’s testimony. Ann has better evidence of the truth of the sentence about what Frank knows about Mary having hands.

Enter: Brueckner and Buford’s final response. The problem stems from a mischaracterization of the time sequence. At time (t) Mary’s evidence about her having hands doesn’t qualify to meet the demands put on knowledge in that context. Baumann loses the time-indexing and proposes another time (t’) at which Mary meets Ann. At (t’) Mary gains testimonial knowledge and comes to know that Ann’s utterance of the sentence ‘“Frank knows that Mary has hands” is true in O’ is true in D. This is because of (X):

  • (X) ‘Ann knows that Mary has hands’ is true in D.

However, contrary to Baumann’s insistence, the time shift from (t) to (t’) doesn’t hinge on a principle like (Prior). Mary doesn’t have prior, independent knowledge that the sentence is true. At (t) she has no such knowledge, but at (t’) she does have such knowledge. Brueckner and Buford are fine with this type of gain in testimonial knowledge. Their key point is that Mary’s epistemic state has altered from (t) to (t’). There’s nothing wrong with Mary failing to know that she has hands at (t) and Mary knowing that she has hands at (t’). Focusing on (t) Brueckner and Buford’s response to the Factivity Problem still stands.

Tracking this debate has been interesting. Regarding the debate itself, I would say Brueckner and Buford’s challenge is still on the table. It seems the Factivity Problem is not a problem for Contextualism. The burden of proof is on those who want to apply the problem to contextualism and then fend off the problem. Otherwise, the Factivity problem seems like a pseudo-problem. It dissolves upon closer inspection.

There might be different avenues for the contextualist to pursue in showing the problem is real and that the problem can be handled. The ‘B vs. B&B’ debate focuses around a single premise in the Factivity argument because it is viewed as, “By far the most promising way of attacking the view that there is such a factivity problem for contextualism” (Baumann 2010: 84). Yet, different avenues remain open to the contextualist. She could attack closure, factivity or disquotation principles. I wonder what the prospects are for focusing on the factivity claim in the argument ?  Listen to how strongly Baumann expresses the pull of the factivity claim:

It certainly seems weird if not crazy to deny the factivity of knowledge. Whatever knowledge is, it is factive. Nothing is a concept of knowledge in a broad sense if what it is a concept of isn’t factive. The solution to the factivity problem proposed here will therefore not deny factivity (Baumann 2008: 584).

The quote above strikes my ear as argument by brute force. Baumann doesn’t think denying the factivity claim is promising. He doesn’t argue against it because “obviously” knowledge is factive. But, couldn’t a contextualist deny factivity on fallibilist grounds (e.g., Stewart Cohen 1988)? Why does Baumann think attacking factivity is so “obviously” unfruitful? Why must it always be the case that if someone knows something then what they know is the case?

I close on a methodological note. It’s interesting to track a philosophical debate because there’s a narrowing effect that often occurs. For example, the Factivity Problem originally addressed contextualism and SSI. However, SSI dropped out of the picture never to return. I have found this true in my own work. I recently was involved in a debate that focused around a single issue. I kept trying to explain and argue a small point. After failing to make headway I conceded the point to my interlocutor. Ironically, conceding the smaller point allowed me to argue for a larger point more effectively. This is why it’s beneficial to frequently zoom out and locate the contested point in the bigger picture. For the Factivity Debate to continue the discussants need to let go of premise (3) and look at other lines of debate, including forgotten aspects of the bigger picture.

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