Philosophy Contextualism
Tim Black
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0159


According to contextualism in epistemology, the truth-value of knowledge attributions (“S knows that p”) and knowledge denials (“S does not know that p”) depends in some significant way on the context in which those sentences are uttered. The most prominent form of contextualism has it that certain features of the attributer’s conversational context help to determine the relevant epistemic standards. The standards for knowledge can therefore vary from one context of attribution to another. For a knowledge attribution to be true in a particular context, its subject must meet such standards as have been set in the attributer’s context. In some contexts, the epistemic standards are unusually high and it is difficult, if not impossible, for knowledge attributions to be true. In most contexts, however, the epistemic standards are comparatively low and attributions of knowledge are often true. The primary arguments for epistemological contextualism maintain that it best explains the behavior of knowledge attributions—it best explains why in most contexts we judge such attributions to be true, but why in some contexts we nevertheless judge them to be false. This entry focuses on arguments for and against this brand of contextualism.

General Overviews

Several introductory overviews of epistemological contextualism are available. Some of these are particularly useful in that they are comprehensive and up-to-date. DeRose 1999, whose author is perhaps foremost among epistemological contextualists, provides a partisan introduction to his version of contextualism. His lucidly written piece also discusses contextualism’s precursors and history, its relation to other views in epistemology, and its importance to the problem of skepticism. Two less partisan overviews are available online at no cost: Black 2003 provides a thorough discussion of the earlier literature on contextualism, while Rysiew 2007 is an up-to-date and comprehensive—and extremely helpful—overview of the contextualist literature. Brendel and Jäger 2004 reviews arguments for and against contextualism, as well as contextualism’s treatment of some thorny epistemological issues. Brady and Pritchard 2005 outlines both the contextualist position and some of the main criticisms of the view.

  • Black, T. “Contextualism in Epistemology.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by J. Fieser and B. Dowden. 2003.

    Offers a detailed overview of the earlier literature on contextualism in epistemology.

  • Brady, M., and D. Pritchard. “Epistemological Contextualism: Problems and Prospects.” Philosophical Quarterly 55 (2005): 161–171.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0031-8094.2005.00393.x

    Outlines the contextualist position in epistemology, as well as some of the primary criticisms of the view.

  • Brendel, E., and C. Jäger. “Contextualist Approaches to Epistemology: Problems and Prospects.” Erkenntnis 61.2–3 (2004): 143–172.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10670-004-0489-3

    Surveys arguments for and against various forms of contextualism. Recounts contextualism’s treatment of epistemological problems like the skeptical problem and the lottery paradox.

  • DeRose, K. “Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense.” In Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Edited by J. Greco and E. Sosa, 187–205. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

    Explains epistemological contextualism, its precursors and history, its relation to other views in epistemology, and its importance to the problem of skepticism. Defends contextualism against the objection that it is warranted-assertability conditions, rather than truth conditions, which vary with context.

  • Rysiew, P. “Epistemic Contextualism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by E. Zalta. 2007.

    An extremely helpful, comprehensive, and up-to-date overview of the literature on contextualism in epistemology.

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