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
- The bank is open Saturday morning
- Hannah decides that despite the importance of banking the check, she’ll leave it until Saturday, because the queues are very long. Since the bank is open this is OK. (Aren’t bank queues reliably very bad on Saturday mornings too? Does this affect the intuitions about the case?)
- Suzanna is in the position Hannah thinks she is in at first, where it doesn’t matter whether she deposits her paycheck until Monday if the bank happens to be closed on Saturday. She has slightly worse evidence than Hannah for the Saturday opening, having last been at the bank on Saturday morning three weeks ago.
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.