Does History require a variety of Contextualism?

John GrecoIn the July issue of The Philosophical Quarterly, 58(232), John Greco asks: “What’s wrong with Contextualism?” His discussion connects with one of AHP‘s recurring themes — the doing of history — in several interesting ways. In particular, his essay will be of special relevance to those interested in writing intellectual histories.

…the present thesis is that knowledge attributions are a kind of credit attribution, and that credit attributions in general involve causal explanations: to say that a person S is creditable for some state of affairs A, is to say that S’s agency is salient in an explanation regarding how or why A came about. (pp. 419-420)

In other words, claims about past intellectual achievements require an explanation detailing how those achievements were achieved. It is insufficient merely to state, for example, that al-Tabari invented “psychotherapy” (here and here). Rather, the invention must be presented alongside a description of the context in which such a thought became thinkable (previously discussed at AHP here).

…knowledge attributions are sensitive to context because they involve causal explanations, and causal explanations are sensitive to context. Knowledge attributions inherit the context-sensitivity of causal explanations. If this is right, then there should be cases where the truth-value of a knowledge attribution seems to vary with context, and where the variation in truth-value seems to sway with the salience of S’s abilities in explaining how S came to have the true belief in question. (p. 420)

Greco then simplifies his argument further, proposing a basic syllogism:

1. Knowledge attributions involve causal explanations
2. Causal explanations require a contextualist semantics
3. Therefore knowledge attributions require a contextualist semantics. (p. 421)

To rephrase, in light of AHP‘s slightly different usage of these concepts: defending an historical claim also requires a defense of the causes for the holding of that claim, which in turn requires an unpacking of the set of underlying meanings through which that claim is to be interpreted. In the case of al-Tabari’s “psychotherapy,” following our previous example, the original term — al-‘ilaj al-nafs — can be translated more literally through its Greek influences as “The Curing/Treatment of the Ideas/Soul/Vegetative Mind” (which I originally noted here). And this, of course, implies something very different from the contemporary meaning of the word used.

Greco then expands his syllogistic definition to fit a broader category of historical problem:

Just as knowledge attributions imply that the efforts and abilities of some knower are salient in the explanation of an intellectual success, some moral claims imply that the efforts and abilities of a moral agent are salient in the explanation of some moral success or failure. The most obvious candidates are attributions of moral responsibility, and this is the position I will consider. The position, then, is that attributions of moral responsibility imply a causal explanation for the moral success or failure in question, thereby inheriting the contextualist semantics of causal explanation language in general. For example, to say that S is morally to blame for the fire is to say that the fire occurred as a result of S’s agency. But of course it can’t be that S’s agency was involved in just any way — the claim implies that S’s agency is important or salient in an explanation regarding why the fire occurred. And that sort of explanatory salience, the position claims, is relative to the interests and purposes at play in the attributor’s context. (p. 422)

The remainder of his essay is then devoted to defending this claim against philosophical attack, with examples aplenty. But if you accept his syllogism, as well as my generalization of his argument and its application to the doing of history, then his conclusions seem worth reviewing:

One’s practical environment is constituted by those aspects of one’s environment that are relevant to practical reasoning. Often enough, the practical reasoner with whom we are concerned will be in the attributor’s practical environment. Often enough, that is, one attributes knowledge for the purpose of practical reasoning in one’s own practical environment. But sometimes the practical reasoner will be outside the attributor’s practical environment. For example, sometimes we attribute knowledge for the purpose of practical reasoning in the subject’s practical environment. In that case, it would seem, it is the interests and purposes operative in the subject’s practical environment that are relevant. (p. 433)

From this, Greco abstracts a general rule that we can apply to the doing of history in psychology:

the truth-value of knowledge attributions (and the like) depends on the interests and purposes operative in the relevant practical reasoning environment. Sometimes this will be the practical environment of the attributor, sometimes that of the subject, and sometimes that of some third party. The position that results, however, will be a version of attributor contextualism, since it entails that the truth-value of knowledge claims is variable over attributor contexts. More exactly, the position is a version of interest-dependent, subject-sensitive contextualism. (p. 433)

And this, it seems, supports the inclusion of some social context in even the most intellectual of histories. If the reader can understand that which affords meaning, then she will be better prepared to understand the what that is meaningful. As a result, continuing our earlier example ad absurdum, she will also be less likely to equate “psychotherapy” with the curing or treatment of the vegetative soul.

(Although the page references above are to the published version of Greco’s article, you can get a free PDF of the pre-press manuscript here.)

See also: Pragmatism in History


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

2 thoughts on “Does History require a variety of Contextualism?

  1. Dear Jeremy,

    Thanks for your interest in my article. I think you are absolutely right that the ideas defended there have relevance for history and intellectual history. In fact, I imagine there would be great examples from those disciplines, where different historians are arguing over the “real” cause of historical event X. I’m not surprised to learn that people in your field have similar discussions regarding the significance of causal attributions and credit attributions.


    John Greco
    Leonard and Elizabeth Eslick Chair in Philosophy
    Department of Philosophy
    Saint Louis University

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