Cognition and Communication: New Foundations for Contextualism (completed)

This project weaves together ideas from two major strands in recent philosophy of language and mind, externalism and contextualism. The overarching philosophical motivation is to use externalist insights to outline a new model of communication to serve as the foundation of a radical contextualism.


Externalism and contextualism are among the most hotly debated topics in recent analytic philosophy, yet there has never been a systematic study bringing the two together. The project starts from precisely such a juxtaposition, with the aim of providing a new theoretical footing for contextualism. One motivation for choosing this starting point is that while contextualism remains a very controversial doctrine, externalism has deservedly come to enjoy a status of great philosophical plausibility. Yet, though seldom recognized as such, externalism is at heart a contextualist position.


First, I show how we can render contextualism more robust by boosting its scope and ambition: we must take contextualism not merely as a doctrine about semantics, narrowly construed, but also as bearing on psychological content. In spite of its plausibility, such a move is resisted by many contributors on both sides of the contextualism debates. Nonetheless, in resisting this move, contextualists are doing their theory a great disservice, as can be seen by examples from the development of externalism.

Second, I counter the strongest criticism of contextualism, namely that it cannot account for communication. I concede that contextualism is incompatible with a certain widely accepted model of communication. The problem, however, is with this model of communication, not with contextualism itself. I show, on independent grounds, how this model suffers from crucial flaws and should be abandoned. As a result, we are free to construe contextualism as a further argument against this model of communication, not as a theory to be tested against it. Finally, I go on to outline a new model of communication which is not merely compatible with contextualism, but builds on and actively integrates contextualist insights by showing how contextual factors can support communicative understanding when shared, conventional semantic resources come up short.

Published Jan. 20, 2012 2:20 PM - Last modified Mar. 6, 2013 10:03 AM