In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contrastivism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Objections to Contrastivism

Philosophy Contrastivism
Nathan Cockram, Adam Morton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0346


In the history of epistemology, there are many suggestions for separating what we can or do know with what we cannot or do not know. Often the distinction between what is known and what is not is very subtle. (See Historical Background.) Contrastive accounts of knowledge, a 21st-century phenomenon, try to clarify the distinction in terms of contrast, using as a basic formula: “person a knows that p is true rather than alternative q.” Thus, contrastivism is, first and foremost, a view about the structure of the knowledge relation. Traditionally, knowledge has been characterized as a two-place relation, Ksp, which obtains between a subject s, and a proposition p. Contrastivists argue that the traditional picture is faulty, and that knowledge is in fact a three-place (ternary) relation, Kspq, which obtains between a subject s, a proposition p, and a particular or set of contrasts, propositions that the subject is in a position to exclude. One might gesture at motivating the ternary conception of knowledge via the following observations. First, there are familiar examples drawn from the epistemology of perception. A person might know that there is a goldfinch in her garden rather than a bald eagle, but not know that there is a goldfinch in her garden rather than a goldfinch hologram. A contrastivist can neatly explain why she knows the former but not the latter: her perceptual evidence is adequate to rule out the first contrast, but not the second. Second, similar three-place ascriptions are common in English; it is quite natural to say something like “Johnny stole the bicycle rather than the scooter” in response to the question “What did Johnny steal?” According to epistemic contrastivism, a basic aim of epistemology is to clarify not what we know absolutely but what contrasts there are between the known and the unknown. Third, as a theory about the structure of the knowledge relation, contrastivism is neutral regarding how a proposition is to be picked out from the set of contrasts it is embedded within, but it has a natural affinity with the way that ascriptions of knowledge shift from one context to another, sometimes seeming very stringent and sometimes very permissive. In this it resembles epistemic contextualism (see the Oxford Bibliographies article in Philosophy “Contextualism”), though the mechanism it proposes for variation between contexts is different.

General Overviews

There is no book-length general overview of contrastivism. And while Blaauw 2013 does contain some articles on epistemic contrastivism, the scope is wider, and it does not provide a comprehensive survey of the latter. Blaauw 2008a is perhaps the best overview of the topic. Morton 2010 focuses on the underlying intuitions and the historical background.

  • Baumann, Peter. “Epistemic Contrastivism.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.

    An up-to-date survey of the topic, with a generally skeptical tone about the ambitions of contrastivism with respect to its rivals.

  • Blaauw, Martijn. “Contrastivism in Epistemology.” Social Epistemology 22.3 (2008a): 227–234.

    DOI: 10.1080/02691720802550064

    A useful and fairly comprehensive survey of work on contrastive knowledge and closely related areas.

  • Blaauw, Martijn, ed. Special Issue: Contrastivism. Social Epistemology 22.3 (2008b).

    A variety of positions on contrastive knowledge, some of them skeptical about its existence, and some relating it to more general contrastive constructions.

  • Blaauw, Martijn, ed. Contrastivism in Philosophy: New Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    A discussion of the general move from two-place attributes to three-place “rather than” attributes.

  • Morton, Adam. “Contrastivism.” In The Routledge Companion to Epistemology. Edited by Duncan Pritchard and Sven Bernecker, 513–522. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    A general approach to contrastive ideas in epistemology, particularly with respect to knowledge and emphasizing connections with epistemic accounts that are not usually labeled as contrastive.

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