Friday, August 1, 2008

Contextualism: An argument in search of a conclusion

"You know you are a moderately competent art history graduate student. You are visiting a 15th century Italian church Professor Takayama, the world's foremost expert in Fra Angelico. You see a painting that you think is quite definitely not by Fra Angelico. Professor Takayama points to it and says: 'I am quite certain this is by Fra Angelico.' You conclude, on the authority of the great Takayama, that the painting must indeed be by Fra Angelico. Then Professor Takayama turns to you and asks: 'Do you agree?' You respond, quite honestly: 'Yes, quite certainly.'"

7 comments:

Enigman said...

(a missing "with" in the second sentence?)

The question was equivocal, as was the response. The professor presumably meant to exclude such agreement, and so the reply should have too (or should have included it only parenthetically).

The reply was intended to be less informative that it would presumably have appeared to the Professor, but it might be that the Professor is familiar with such replies. Either way, he can always ask: "Why do you think it is by Fra Angelico?"

I would conclude that one is never wrong to ask for clarification, even when it seems that none is necessary. (I regard that as the essence of philosophy.)

Enigman said...

I'm wondering what you think of your argument, e.g. is it trying to be an argument for Contextualism?
To me it seems obvious that language is contextualistic.
But I also suspect that there will be problems trying to prove it. (My analogy would be with how obvious it is that there are laws of nature (of some form) and how difficult it is to refute David Lewis on his own terms.) The attempt to use language well shows one just how contextualistic it is.
But therefore it occurs to me that engaging with opponents of Contextualism, e.g. with such arguments, will indirectly help them to see that.
Is that the idea?

Enigman said...

My other theory is that the conclusion was supposed to be "Ha ha!" and I'm dreadfully dull...

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, one conclusion could be that what counts as a "belief" is very contextual. But I now think that would be a poor conclusion to draw. In the story, at the end you don't have a belief in any sense that the painting is by Fra Angelico. A better conclusion is that sometimes "Do you agree?" means something other than "Do you agree?" I don't quite have the logical grammar of the relevant sense of "agree". An approximation is: "Do you think so on a basis other than my authority?"

Enigman said...

Don't you have a belief that the painting is by Fra Angelico, which you hold on the grounds of testimony (plus some doubts about your previous reasons for the negation)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sorry, I should have said that you don't have any belief that it is not by Fra Angelico, and you have an unambiguous firm belief that it is by him.

DWLindeman said...

There could be the implied assumption that when the professor made his attribution to Fra Angelico known, that the grad student had the epiphany that the professor was right. We could imagine, however, that the graduate student subsequently discovered archival evidence that Fra Angelico departed from this commission early-on, to hurry off to a more important commission, leaving completion of the first artwork to his workshop (apprentices). In such a case, the original belief, of both professor and grad student, would collapse. Ideally, they could then co-author a paper on why their original belief was wrong, and reattribute the artwork to "Workshop of Fra Angelico".