What is 'Pragmatic Encroachment'?


I tried to read

I also tried reading

One of the biggest problems is that this term seems to not be sufficiently specific, and includes too many 'pragmatic factors' for the basis of what would be considered 'pragmatic-encroachment', and thus this term/word doesn't seem to be a meaningful to me in any practical sense.

Basic notes:

'pragmatic encroachment' was created after 'contextualism'

'Epistemic Luck' = 'generic notion used to describe any of number of ways in which it can be accidental, coincidental, or fortuitous that person has true belief.'


  • Please use simple language + real world examples to explain/show where possible

  • I have no formal background in philosophy

  • One could also answer with any really good links like a good YouTube video.

  • In life, I'm an instrumentalist; on what is accurate info, I'm pretty much an empiricist, and sometimes a pragmatist/relativist, so if you could reply in a way that is more understandable to me that would be good

  • I think I'm pretty open to new info & evidence, and agree with the basis of underdetermination.


2 Answers 2


This question arises in the context of the traditional philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge. We might summarise that enquiry as: under what conditions is it correct to say that a person X knows that a proposition P is true? To emphasise the point: the analysis is not concerned with the conditions under which P is true or accurate, but the conditions under which it is correct to say that X knows that P. A fairly standard approach is to say that X knows that P if (a) X believes P, (b) P is true, and (c) some additional constraint is present that connects the belief with the truth of P. Some plausible candidates for (c) are that the belief was obtained in a reliable way, or that is was caused in an appropriate way, or that the belief counterfactually tracks the truth of P, or that the truth of P was not a matter of luck.

The problem is that there is no simple answer to the question of what knowledge is. In real world situations, whether a person can justifiably claim to know that P depends on such factors as who is speaking, on what occasion, in front of what audience, what common knowledge there is between themselves and their audience, and what is at stake. These are said to be pragmatic factors. The term pragmatic encroachment was introduced in 2004, though arguably the idea behind it goes back to 2001.

Consider some examples. Suppose Alice is taking her young son Bob to the zoo. She points to a zebra and tells Bob this is a zebra. By doing so, she is claiming to know that this animal is a zebra. Bob might even ask whether she knows this is a zebra, and she will justifiably say: yes. Alice, like most of us, is competent at identifying zebras. Now suppose Charlie, who is an expert zoologist, asks Alice: How do you know this isn't a horse painted to look like a zebra? Alice does not have the expertise to tell the difference. She may judge it unlikely that a zoo would display a painted horse, but she can hardly claim to be certain that it would not. When it was just a question of telling her son that this is a zebra, such considerations were irrelevant, but now that the question of the animal possibly being a painted horse has become salient, it makes a difference. Alice cannot justifiably claim to Charlie that she knows this animal is a zebra. The pragmatics of the situation, i.e. whom Alice is talking to, together with her and their level of expertise, makes a difference as to whether she can claim to know the animal is a zebra.

Suppose we ask Carol what blood group she is. She replies: 'A'. She believes this because she had a blood test a few years ago, and this is what is written down on her blood donor card. And it is true. For most purposes it would seem reasonable to say that Carol knows her blood group. But if she is about to receive a blood transfusion and a mistake will cost her her life, she might well say she does now know, or at least not for certain. A confirming test would be prudent. Here, the issue of what is at stake becomes material to the question of whether Carol knows her blood group.

Examples like these arise because there is a tension between the requirement on the one hand that knowledge should be reliable, or truth-tracking, or caused in an appropriate way, or free from luck, and the fact on the other hand that we cannot legitimately claim absolute certainty about anything. To require certainty would rule out knowledge altogether, while to have a single fixed constraint that is a sufficient condition allows for counterexamples. Pragmatic encroachment is the position that what counts as a sufficient condition for knowledge depends on the speaker, the audience, the circumstances, the common knowledge, what is at stake, etc.

Pragmatic encroachment is not unique to the analysis of knowledge. Pragmatics is also concerned with what utterances mean and under what conditions they may be true. Sentences do not typically have a single determinate meaning or truth value that is independent of the pragmatic circumstances in which they are uttered. As to being specific, the extent of the effect of pragmatics is not readily measurable in a quantitative way. One can try to quantify degrees of uncertainty - Bayesians do - but one is still left with the fact that there is no particular single value epsilon, such that one can claim to know a proposition A if the probability of A is greater than 1 minus epsilon. The appropriate value of epsilon would itself be subject to pragmatic factors.

  • 2) now that i've a better understanding of the core of this idea, this was said, 'Pragmatic encroachment is the position that what counts as a sufficient condition for knowledge depends on the speaker, the audience,', but if it 'depends on the speaker, the audience, etc', how then does an external outside party make this decision and claim that X knows P is true? they arent the speaker or audience or have any association with the actual party. this is likely related to 1) Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 6:47
  • 5) so it was clarified that this idea was non-unique or special in any way, and maybe it's not, maybe it is, im not sure yet, i guess this relates to #3. i have a better understanding of this mainly due to this part: 'X believes P... belief with the truth of P.' this fundamental to what 'pragmatic-encroachment' is. i guess the clarifying question is are there advance or... ideas that progresses from this since it's such a relatively recent idea (2001-2004), and yet im not sure what it really offers. and so im trying to figure out how much it value it really has Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 7:32
  • @hardquestions I see some basic tension here: The term emerged in the context of one of the most complex discourses/problems in epistemology. It is trying to frame one aspect of one position within this discourse (i.e. the position that truth is not absolute but inherently normative and hence up to pragmatic context), for which of course ample arguments are given (indeed, whole books are written). I think bumble has done a decent job in framing the idea in simple terms, but reviewing arguments for and against will not be possible without getting technical.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 10:20
  • 'in the context of one of the most ... up to pragmatic context' - yea i started to make this assumption that the term was created basically to be able to 'talk' to how most philosophers 'think/are', but i wasnt sure since it wasnt said/specified, so i wasnt really sure what was going on. all/most of these things could likely be replied to briefly without asking entire questions, which would just cause more confusion due to differences in understandings. ppl may ask 'can you be more specific' and all these needless stuff. the singular title question is sufficient for the right person to answer Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 10:47
  • 1
    the basic intro/understanding of what this is in ''X believes P... belief with the truth of P.' helps me to read the other links that arent in op, but much of the stuff are so far are irrelevant cos ppl are talking about things that dont reply to the kinds of claification questions i asked. the BIGGEST thing i was SO CONFUSED about was that this essentially 'practical context' idea is well-known in every single field/topic long before 2001-2003 besides philosophy, (and i understand now that this specific term is about the 'linkage') but that's why i was just so baffled by all this Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 10:47

Put simply

And in order to answer the question in the title only.

Pragmatic encroachment is when pragmatic concerns can raise or lower the bar of epistemic standard that is required for some belief to be epistemically justified.

As put by Cameron Bertuzzi here.

For example:

  • Believing that it is beneficial to believe in Christianity, and thus lowering the bar of evidence required.
  • Believing that one's cancer will be cured, as this belief increases the likelihood of the cancer being cured.

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