Skip to main content.
August 14th, 2003

The Bank Cases

I was reading Keith DeRose’s Assertion, Knowledge and Context, and I was feeling unconvinced by the old Bank Cases that are meant to motivate contextualism. I thought the ‘relevant alternatives’ explanation of the cases was much to be preferred. If you don’t know the cases, here’s Jason Stanley’s version of the case.




Hannah and her husband are driving home on a Friday afternoon. They plan to stop at the bank on the way home to deposit our paychecks. But as they drive past the bank, they notice that the lines inside are very long, as they often are on Friday afternoons. Thinking that it isn’t very important that their paychecks are deposited right away, Hannah says "I know the bank will be open tomorrow, since I was there just two weeks ago on Saturday morning. So we can deposit them tomorrow morning." But then Hannah’s husband reminds her that a very important bill comes due on Monday, and that we have to have enough money in our account to cover it. He says, "Banks do change their hours. Are you certain that’s not what is going to happen tomorrow?" Hannah concedes, uttering "I guess I don’t really know that the bank will be open tomorrow."



Keith takes this kind of case to be good evidence for contextualism. Other people (including Jason in the linked paper, and John Hawthorne in his talk at the last APA Pacific) think that the best explanation for them is a kind of relevant alternatives view. If it is not important to Hannah whether the bank is open Saturday morning, then she does know, if it is important then she does not know. The idea is that whether an alternative is relevant might depend on how much it would affect the speaker if it were true. I’ve always thought this kind of explanation was a much better explanation of the Bank Cases than the contextualist explanation, and I just noticed what I think is a new-ish argument for just that position. (Actually, there’s a few inter-related arguments here, I think.)


Change the case so that the following is all (explicitly) true



We’re now having a conversation on Saturday night.


(1) WOODY: Why didn’t you deposit the paycheck Friday afternoon if it was so important?


(2) HANNAH: Because I knew the bank would be open Saturday morning.


(3) WOODY (Scowls doubtfully): What about you Suzanna? Did you also know the bank would be open Saturday morning?


(4) SUZANNA: Yes.


Here’s my intuitions about the conversation. Hannah’s utterance (2) is no more acceptable by regular conversational standards than if she had held her ground in the original story and said at the end "Whatever, I know it’s open Saturday morning." (Changing the stress pattern on ‘Whatever’ can change the acceptability of this utterance I think, but I take it the contextualist thinks it is bad.) On the other hand, Suzanna’s affirmative reply in (4) is perfectly fine. I don’t think contextualists can explain this pattern.


The first problem is that Hannah is no longer in a high stakes situation, since the check is now safely in the bank. What makes (2) dubious is that the stakes were high for the subject of the ascription – her Friday afternoon temporal part – even though they are low for the ascriber – her Saturday night temporal part.


Perhaps the contextualist can respond to this by saying that the conversation, in particular Woody’s question in (1) has made the high stakes situation somehow salient. But if we’re now in a ‘high stakes’ context, why can Suzanna say ‘yes’ in (4). In the high stakes context, she doesn’t know.


Finally, if ‘know’ changes extension between the (1)/(2) context and the (3)/(4) context, then I think Woody’s ‘also’ should sound defective. The relation Hannah self-attributes is different to the relation Suzanna self-attributes. To put the point another way, where does the context change? At (2)? At (3)? At (4)? I think it’s hard to explain the behaviour of cross-contextual references on the contextualist theory.


Note that the Relevant Alternatives theorist has no problem with any of this. Hannah didn’t know at the time, because for her then, the possibility of a change in bank hours was relevant. Suzanna did know, because that possibility wasn’t relevant for her. This is the very same ‘know’ in each case, it’s just that it’s application is sensitive to external conditions in a way that epistemologists have not historically given sufficient attention.


UPDATE: I might have been a bit harsh on the contextualists, so let me note one respect in which they may (may) have an advantage over the RA theorist. Imagine the bank’s manager asks her marketing director how many people know the bank is open Saturday morning. I would guess that whether or not Hannah has an important bill to pay on Monday is completely irrelevant to how she should answer. So maybe the RA theory isn’t entirely the right way to go.


Of course, I’m on record arguing thinking that “How many Xs know” question leads to an argument that knowledge = true belief, so whether this is altogether good news for the contextualist is not obvious.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Favourite

9 Comments »

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 14th, 2003 at 4:40 pm and is filed under Favourite. You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

9 Responses to “The Bank Cases”

  1. Keith DeRose says:

    As briefly as I can muster here. I take the evident facts to be these. First, sometimes we as speakers apply to far-away subjects who are no party to our conversation (or to our past selves, who were in very different contexts than we are in as we speak) standards that are appropriate to the subjects’ conversational contexts. This often happens, for instance, when we are discussing practical decisions those subjects face(d): “She should do that only if she knows…” Here, if the subject is/was in a high-stakes context, we’ll tend to apply high standards to her.

    But, second, and equally evident, in some contexts we’ll apply standards to far-away subjects (or our own past selves) standards that are appropriate to our own present context. We’ll do this, for instance, in cases where we’re discussing absent subjects as potential sources of information to us. Thus, suppose we’re in a high-stakes bank context, wondering whether to rush over to the bank on Friday aft., having admitted that we “don’t know” it’s open on Saturday. Suppose that in this high-stakes context we won’t count ourselves as knowing that on the basis of having been at the bank two weeks ago on Saturday and having found it open with posted hours that include Sat. morning hours, but only if we’ve made some special check, like calling a bank employee who’s told us that the hours haven’t changed, that he himself is scheduled to work Sat. morning, etc. Now, if we’re asked whether someone not present at the conversation might “know” whether it’s open on Sat., where the thought here is that if she does “know” we can call her up, find out, & then “know” ourselves, we’ll apply high standards to her: If one of us knows that this absent subject doesn’t meet the extra-high standards, he’ll say that this absent subject, like us, “doesn’t know.” [Here, for reasons I won’t take the time to explain, it’s important that we won’t just refrain from saying she “knows”, but will go so far as to say she “doesn’t know”.] And we’ll do this even if we happen to know or suspect that this absent subject is herself now in a low-standards context.

    Non-contextualist RA, and similar non-contextualist views, cannot handle the second evident fact above. On these views, the subject’s context sets the standards that must be met if anyone in any context is to truthfully call the subject a knower. So they predict we won’t apply our own high standards to the absent subject, but will always apply to the absent subject standards appropriate to her own context — and, I suppose, if we have no idea what kind of context she’s in, the prediction is that we’ll be agnostic as to whether she knows. (If you think that maybe our thinking of her, though it happens far away from her, may still be part of her “practical context,” and think this might get the non-contextualist off the hook, this escape quickly comes to grief over easily constuctible cases — like ones where the absent subject somehow knows that we’re talking about her in a high-stakes setting, but her own context calls on her to apply low standards to herself — where speakers happily ignore what they know is going on in far away contexts and apply to themselves standards appropriate to their own local context.) But the evident fact here is that in such a case (where we’re thinking of the subject as potential informant), we will deny that she “knows” if she doesn’t meet the high standards of our own context.

    Contextualism, of course, has no problem with the second fact above. Plus, IT HAS NO PROBLEM WITH THE FIRST FACT, either. There’s nothing in contextualism to prevent speakers’ contexts from selecting standards appropriate to the subject’s practical context. Sometimes we do so, sometimes (and about as often, so far as I can tell) we apply our own standards to them. That’s because sometimes our conversational purposes (and I’ve mentioned a purpose or two for each side above)call on us to apply the one type of standard; sometimes the other.

    We really need a theory that can handle both of these evident facts.

  2. Brian Weatherson says:

    The second kind of case is interesting. It really is important for the argument that knowledge claims about the person in the low-standards situation are denied rather than just not asserted, but maybe that’s what the data says. In any case, there really need to be lots and lots more cases, as few as possible involving present-tense unembedded first-person knowledge ascriptions (which IMHO really don’t discriminate between lots of rival theories) before it’s clear to me which side has the better of the story here. Ideally we want a simple theory which explains (a) the original bank cases, (b) the versions of them given by Keith here, (c) the Woody-Hannah-Suzanna conversation in the post, (d) the manager-marketing director conversation in the update and (e) to (z) more examples that people are yet to generate before we can confidently say which direction the data point in.

  3. Brian Weatherson says:

    And I should add, I suspect everyone here is eventually going to have to say that the folk theory needs massaging at some point to be made plausible or even consistent. If the RA theorist has to say that people sometimes make negated knowledge claims when really they should be staying silent, that might not be too costly an error claim to make, because we know that in this area negation is not well behaved. (Compare the frequent use of “I don’t believe” to mean “I believe not”, considered a horrible gaffe by syntactic prescriptivists, and an interesting transformational fact by descriptivists.)

  4. Keith DeRose says:

    Contextualists, myself included, certainly have stressed cases involving first-person cases far too much. That’s been a mistake. Part of the reason for it is that the live rival to contextualism has been what we might now call “Classical Invariantism,” which agrees with contextualism that it’s the speaker’s context that sets the standards for knowledge attributions (first-, second-, or third-person)(though it can, and should, also agree with contextualism that the speaker’s context will often select standards approriate to the subject’s context), but insists, against contextualism, that these varying standards govern only whether it’s appropriate (and not true) to attribute “knowledge” to the subject.

    It’s in very recent times that a new form of invariantism — what might be called “Subject-sensitive invariantism,” though it often goes by the misleading name of “subject contextualism” (I think I’m among those who have used that misleading name) — has gotten a lot of attention. On such views, the subject’s context sets the standards that govern whether any speaker can truthfully attribute knowledge to that subject — thus, you can’t get the results contextualists insist on: that one speaker in one context can truthfully ascribe “knowledge” to a subject while another speaker in another context can truthfully deny “knowledge” to that same subject at the same time.

    Now, I think it’s not just an historical accident that Classical Invariantism was seen as the real threat. I think it is the more threatening form of invariantism, and have long thought so on the basis of cases for reasons like those in my above comment. Subject sensitive invariantism seems a strange concoction to me in the way it goes so far to make first-person knowledge claims come out true, yet has to go in for a big-time error theory about third-person attributions. It seems to miss the fact that the very conversational factors that make us raise the standards on ourselves also often make us raise the standards on subjects not present at our conversation.

    But SSI certainly is getting a lot of attention nowadays, and for that reason I suppose can’t anymore just be brushed aside.

  5. Jason Stanley says:

    Here are some reasons why non-contextualist versions of RA are getting attention now. First, there is a lot of work now on trying to figure out when an expression is context-sensitive. It seems that “know” fails virtually every test people have come up with. On the other hand, Keith and other contextualists have rightly brought our attention to certain cases (e.g. bank cases) that suggest that there can be true knowledge ascriptions that seemingly contradict one another. So this naturally leads people like myself and Hawthorne to explore views that can capture bank case intuitions semantically, as contextualists rightly urge, while not committing ourselves to the context-sensitivity of ‘know’. Furthermore, in developing a non-contextualist version of RA, I for one have realized that there are a lot of resources there that haven’t been properly explored.
    My own interest in non-contextualist versions of RA also comes from a general interest in theories that are more restrictive but account for much of the same core data. The contextualist framework is much more flexible — it can explain cases that the non-contextualist theory can’t. But one might worry that it’s too permissive, and can get us ‘out’ of contradictions that are, in fact, contradictions.

  6. Keith says:

    I’d agree that SSI views are are well-motivated (*very* well-motivated) if I agreed with that bit about “knows” failing all these tests for context-sensitivity. This would of course have to be fought out on a test-by-test basis, but my own judgment has been that all the tests “knows” fails that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot!) are also failed by other expressions that are obviously context-sensitive, and so are not good tests at all.

  7. Jason Stanley says:

    I’m not sure there will be one single test that manages to set all context-sensitive expressions on one side and all non-context-sensitive expressions on the other side (this is my worry with Cappelen and Lepore’s latest paper, where they seek to give just such a criterion). So I agree there is not going to be a single criterion test against the context-sensitivity of “know” (or rather, I’m skeptical that there will be). But if “know” is context-sensitive, then there should be some class of (relatively) uncontroversially context-sensitive expressions with which it patterns. It’s here that I have worries — I worry that there is no such class.
    So, Keith, it looks like we’re agreed on the methodology — any consideration that militates against the context-sensitivity of “know” must also not militate against the context-sensitivity of (e.g.) “flat” or “tall” or “many”. But I think I do have arguments that if “know” is context-sensitive, then it is context-sensitive in a hitherto undiscovered way. Some of these arguments I gave in the paper in the contextualism conference at UMass; others will be in the papers I’ll put on my website when I get out of the Daintree rainforest in Australia (where I currently am) and back to Michigan later in the week.
    I’ve been communicating with Stewart Cohen about some of these arguments — one thing he has been saying in these useful e-mails is that “know” is context-sensitive in the same sense as “hit” is context-sensitive. I think we’re at a stalemate — I don’t see any sense in which “hit” is context-sensitive, so I think I win, and he seems to think that “hit” is context-sensitive on the basis of considerations I don’t really understand, so he wins.
    I think what Cohen is detecting with “hit” is that it is vague (either that or that “hit” could be used to mean something slightly different), not that it is context-sensitive. Since I tend to be an epistemicist about vagueness, I’m not sure this position helps evade skepticism.
    But it looks like we’re all agreed on methodology. The question is then whether “know” is context-sensitive like (relatively) uncontroversial context-sensitive expressions. The second question is related. If “know” is context-sensitive rather than interest-relative (the word I use for non-contextualist RA, following Delia Graff’s related theory of vagueness), then its kinematics should be governed by salience. But I think salience isn’t a good model here. Keith, you’ve been saying that the contextualist doesn’t have to appeal to salience to explain how “know” shifts its content across contexts. But if salience governs all other context-sensitive expressions, this suggests again (if salience is the wrong model for “know”) that “know” isn’t context-sensitive (if you recall, this was the point Jeff King raised in discussion of your paper Exploding Scoreboard paper last October).
    The appeal of the interest-relative account (Hawthorne’s SSI — though I think that’s an unhelpful name) is that it explains why salience is the wrong model. So, the worries with the context-sensitive model for “know” (namely, that it suggests an inappropriate model for how the content of “know” gets fixed relative to a context) again provide support for the interest-relative view.

  8. Keith says:

    OK, but it’s one thing to say that “knows” fails every test people have come up with, which will likely make folks think each of these tests is a good test for context-sensitivity, and damned if “knows” doesn’t fail each & every time we put it to the test!, and quite another to say, “We have all these different ways of classifying the how terms behave, and, though “knows” behaves like some (other) context-sensitive terms in some respects, and some others in other respects, we’re not finding any particular uncontroversially context-sensitive terms that match how “knows” behaves with respect to all of these these different aspects.”

    My skepticism about salience explanations is quite general: Not just regarding accounts of “knows”, but throughout a lot of recent philosophy of language, I find myself rebelling against appeals to “salience.” Why is particular content for “tall” expressed on a particular occasion? I can understand someone appealing here to the fact that, given certain conversational purposes, it would be helpful or useful to use “tall” with that particular content on the occasion (though I will generally think that it’s various conversational maneuvers that make “tall” have the content it has, and the fact that that content would be useful just explains, on those occasions where speakers are wise enough to employ a very useful content, why they chose to execute maneuvers that put into play that content, rather than others). And I can understand — and will be more sympathetic to — accounts that appeal in various ways to the conversational moves the speakers have made: “It has that content because the speakers said this, and there is a rule of conversational kinematics by which, when that move is made in such a situation, the content for a relative adjective moves in such-and-such a way…” But what I don’t get is what’s added by putting in salience as an extra step: “His executing such a conversational maneuver, by such-and-such a rule or generalization, made that particular content for ‘tall’ SALIENT, and because it was salient, that was the content for his use”, “Because, for these reasons, that content was the most useful one to use, that made that content SALIENT in the context, and because it was salient, that’s the content that was expressed.” I generally feel that adding in the salience part doesn’t advance my understanding at all; the explanations are just as good (and therefore better, if you know what I mean) without the salience part. Well, I’m not trying to win over converts here to my general skepticism about salience explanations. I’m just speculating (I don’t recall the exchange securely enough to do more than that) that the reason I would express skepticism about the role of salience in response to Jeff’s question was probably because of this general skepticism of mine toward salience explanations. And so I don’t think I’m thereby making “knows” some kind of isolated freak. If I’m convinced that my general skepticism is mis-placed, then I’ll be as open to allowing salience a role in “knows” as in “tall” and the like.

  9. Keith says:

    Two Quick commments on Brian’s