Virtue epistemology, anyone?

study epistemologyFor years now I’ve been interested in virtue ethics, not just from a theoretical standpoint, but also in terms of everyday practice. But there is an approach to epistemology that is also based on the concept of virtue. How is that supposed to work?

To find out, let me summarize and make a few comments on John Greco’s and John Turri’s excellent and comprehensive entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As the authors state at the onset, virtue epistemology comes in a variety of flavors, but all such flavors share two commitments: “First, epistemology is a normative discipline. Second, intellectual agents and communities are the primary source of epistemic value and the primary focus of epistemic evaluation.”

The first thing to notice, therefore, is that virtue epistemologists are opposed to W.V.O. Quine’s famous suggestion that epistemology should become a branch of psychology: descriptive, not prescriptive. That said, however, virtue epistemologists are sensitive to input from the empirical sciences, first and foremost psychology, as any sensible philosophical school ought to be.

A virtue epistemological approach — just like its counterpart in ethics — shifts the focus away from a “point of view from nowhere” and onto specific individuals and communities, which are treated as epistemic agents. As Greco and Turri put it: “virtue ethics explains an action’s moral properties in terms of the agent’s properties, for instance whether it results from kindness or spite. Virtue ethics explains a cognitive performance’s normative properties in terms of the cognizer’s properties, for instance whether a belief results from hastiness or excellent eyesight, or whether an inquiry manifests carelessness or discrimination.”

You can already begin to appreciate that this is indeed a very different way of looking at epistemology, again like virtue ethics is a very different way of looking at ethics, when contrasted with dominant paradigms such as deontology and utilitarianism. And just like virtue ethics has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, so too virtue epistemologists can claim a long philosophical pedigree, including but not limited to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Hume and Bertrand Russell.

Since we are talking about virtue epistemology, one of the first questions is going to be what we mean by “virtue” in this context. According to Greco and Turri: “intellectual virtues are characteristics that promote intellectual flourishing, or which make for an excellent cognizer.” At this point we encounter a split between two positions: for so-called virtue reliabilists the intellectual virtues are things like intuition, memory and perception; for so-called virtue responsibilists they include conscientiousness and open-mindedness (which are, of course, character traits). There are more traits that the authors list in this context: intellectual humility, intellectual courage, and perseverance. And I don’t really think the two camps are at all mutually exclusive.

Virtue epistemology provides a different perspective on standard debates within the field, such as what secures knowledge, or what knowledge is to begin with. The two standard accounts of knowledge are the foundationalist and the coherentist ones. For foundationalists, knowledge looks like a pyramid, gradually built on some kind of solid foundation. The problem is that ever since Hume introduced his famous problem of induction, it has been exceedingly difficult to articulate what, exactly, may constitute such foundation.

Coherentism maintains that truth is arrived at by the interdependence of a “web of beliefs” (to put it as Quine did). But the problem here is that coherence is no guarantee of truth at all, since one can imagine an infinite number of scenarios that are internally coherent, and yet only one of which corresponds to the actual world out there.

(One way to think about this is to appreciate that the real world must be logically coherent, but that there is an infinite number of possible, logically coherent worlds, only one of which is real — unless we are talking about a multiverse.)

Virtue epistemologists see the whole problem from a very different perspective (not necessarily a better one, but certainly refreshingly different): “Suppose we think of virtues in general as excellences of character. A virtue is a stable and successful disposition: an innate ability or an acquired habit [or, more likely, a combination of both], that allows one to reliably achieve some good. An intellectual virtue will then be a cognitive excellence: an innate ability or acquired habit that allows one to reliably achieve some intellectual good, such as truth in a relevant matter. We may now think of justified belief as belief that is appropriately grounded in one’s intellectual virtues, and we may think of knowledge as true belief that is so grounded.”

The difference is that both foundationalism and coherentism ground their accounts of knowledge by examining the properties of beliefs; virtue epistemology, by contrast, begins with a notion of personal intellectual virtue, and then builds its normative account of beliefs on that basis.

A worthwhile notion within virtue epistemology has been introduced by Linda Zagzebski, with her Neo-Aristotelian approach. She proposes a fascinating unified account of epistemic and moral virtues, bringing to epistemology the same “inverse” approach that virtue ethics brings to moral philosophy: analyzing right actions (or right beliefs) in terms of virtuous character, instead of the other way.

As she puts it (quoted from Greco and Turri): “By a pure virtue theory I mean a theory that makes the concept of a right act derivative from the concept of a virtue or some inner state of a person that is a component of virtue. This is a point both about conceptual priority and about moral ontology. In a pure virtue theory the concept of a right act is defined in terms of the concept of a virtue or a component of virtue such as motivation. Furthermore, the property of rightness is something that emerges from the inner traits of persons.”

For Zagzebski intellectual virtues are actually to be thought of as a subset of moral virtues, which I guess would make epistemology a branch of ethics! The parallel is more than intriguing: consider the standard moral virtues, like courage. They are typically understood as being rooted in the agent’s motivation to do good, for instance by risking physical pain. Analogously, the virtuous epistemic agent is motivated by wanting to acquire knowledge, in pursuit of which goal she cultivates the appropriate virtues, like open-mindedness, for instance.

As Greco and Turri point out, “as with the moral virtues, it is possible for a conflict among the intellectual virtues to arise. Thus the intellectually courageous thing to do might conflict with the intellectually humble thing to do. This problem is solved by introducing the mediating virtue of phronesis, or practical wisdom. The practically wise person is able to weigh the demands of all the relevant virtues is a given situation, so as to direct her cognitive activity appropriately.” In other words, the virtuous moral or epistemic agent navigates a complex moral or epistemic problem by adopting an all-things-considered approach with as much wisdom as she can muster. Knowledge itself, then, is recast as a state of belief generated by acts of intellectual virtue.

One final note. Perhaps the most irritating and perennial problem in epistemology is presented by the radical skeptic. You know the type: I’m sitting in my dressing gown in front of a fire, but how do I know that there isn’t an evil demon lurking around, who has actually conjured the scene and tricked me into believing it? (Descartes)

Virtue epistemologists provide a comprehensive analysis of skepticism, but one of the things that struck me as most insightful is that the skeptic may essentially suffer from a lack of epistemic virtue. Specifically, he is guilty of epistemic self-indulgence for wanting to avoid error to a point that goes beyond human capabilities. Knowledge, after all, isn’t “out there,” it is a human creation, and therefore bounded by human limitations. It is wise to simply accept this as the way things are, rather than attempting to ignore or transcend it.


106 thoughts on “Virtue epistemology, anyone?

  1. Daniel:

    I’m beginning to doubt the free translation I found of PI. In sec 19 it translates ‘Platte’ which means ‘plate’ is translated ‘slab’. There’s some resemblance between a plate and a slab, but they’re hardly the same thing.

    Then it translates

    “ruf platte” as “call slab” [a]

    I guess a waiter or somebody might call out ‘plate’, but ‘slab’ makes no sense. W is making a point about one word sentences, but the English version comes out gibberish [b]

    [a] “Cuckoo Cuckoo ruft as dem Wald” might have been a better example. Well maybe not the Cockoo’s call “Cockoo” is not strictly a word.

    [b] The first one word sentence I learned in Germany was ‘Zahlen” which means “count”. It’s how you get your check in a restaurant — otherwise they politely let you sit there all night.


  2. I just checked an online dictionary – not sure how good it is
    Platte {f}
    slab constr.geol.
    Platte {f} [Glas, Blech]
    plate [sheet]
    Platte {f} [relativ dünn; Fliese, Kachel]
    Platte {f} [Wand, Fußboden]
    panel [for panelling]archi.constr.
    Platte {f} [groß und relativ dünn; Bauplatte,
    I believe that they are builders.

    Also, if I give Google Translate “Fetch me a slab” it says “hol mir eine Platte”

    This particular part has been translated as “slab” for as long as I can remember and in every edition I have come across. You will hear a comic reference to this in the Beyond the Fringe sketch “Words and Things”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well you online dictionary is more complete than mine. I was ready to accept ‘plate’ as that’s what I knew from my ‘pidgin German’.

    It still makes 19 hard to follow. I never heard ‘slab’ used that way.

    The side-by-side translation is certainly slowing me down as I try to pick up some understanding of Wiggenstein. I keep looking over at the German. There’s another place where it appears to change from active to passive voice in translation, but it’s not like I really understand German well. It’s a point in Wiggenstein favor that I can kind of understand his German. When we lived in Munich I couldn’t make heads or tails of the Süddeutsche Zeitung and had to settle of Das Bild where the pictures told the story.


  4. Synred: Given your training and education, I would also highly recommend Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics,” though I’m sure you hardly need more to read.

    Wittgenstein was an architect and engineer as well as a great philosopher.


  5. Wittgenstein was an architect and engineer as well as a great philosopher.

    Interesting. I didn’t know that.


  6. So it’s $14 on KIndle, but I don’t think I spring for it just yet. Strange that this would be available and PI is not.


  7. Dan, gotta love Wittgenstein’s comment about the house:

    “I am not interested in erecting a building, but in […] presenting to myself the foundations of all possible buildings.”

    Arguably, the life of Wittgenstein, in a nutshell.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 30. The paragraph begging “Could …”

    The following translation seems off and changes the meaning some:

    Deutchen Sprache nicht macktig ist

    English is weak

    I might say ‘my german is weak’, but saying ‘it is not powerful’ gives my German more credit than it deserves.

    It’s not the substitution of English for German that bothers me, but the stronger positive expression for the negative formulation.

    ‘Weak’ and ‘not powerful’ are not exact opposites.

    Indeed as my German is weak, my understanding of the word ‘Machtig’ may be inexact, but it seems wrong. Why would the translator do this?

    I do need to quit looking at the German, if I’m to get anywhere with PI.


  9. synred,

    Although I respect your effort to understand Wittgenstein, I’m not sure that the commentary thread to a blog like this is the best place to engage a phrase by phrase exegesis of translation difficulties.

    My advice is just read the whole of the text first, and get a sense of it; then you can go back and peck at the phrases. (You might also consider reading interpretive texts on Wittgenstein.)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. All,

    While I have enjoyed your Witty-centered discussion, I must second ej’s comment.

    Also, Dan, and Socratic, I’m not really sure this is as relevant as you guys think. Virtue epistemology isn’t any kind of foundations list approach. Indeed, as I explained in the essay, it attempts to solve dichotomous choices like foundationalism vs coherentism.

    One may or may not buy that approach, but to reject it on the ground that it is foundationalist, or that one doesn’t accept the applicability of the concept of virtue to epistemology (which seems pretty straightforward to me) is t the best way to go about it.


  11. How might followers of virtue epistemology, tend to consider outsiders? Would they claim that such people must first “pay their dues” in order to earn the right to earnest consideration? No, I don’t think so. I suspect that virtue epistemologists would evaluate various presented ideas, regardless of the pedigrees attached to them. Furthermore if we’re talking about fields which have not yet achieved much in the way of generally accepted understandings, I’d expect for these people to be even more open to the thought that outside perspectives might be helpful (possibly to the chagrin of insiders!).

    The essential problem with virtue epistemology, I think, is that in the end we’re all actually “selfish” rather than “virtuous.” Thus in order to succeed, a theorist must not simply have good ideas, but be a skilled political pragmatism, and a better pedigree should generally help. Unfortunately I’m a lousy politician without much of a pedigree — my ideas themselves must earn their keep or be buried with me.

    So what shall I do with my various models (rather than theories), if it is true that our world is not “virtuous”? (And if it is, then my models would naturally be crap anyway.) I suppose that I’ll continue trying to learn about associated fields, as I have been for the past two years. (It took about twenty five years before my models sufficiently satisfied me, though I still believe that this was the right order of approach.) Furthermore I can shield myself with two recent essays from David Ottlenger over at the EA (beginning here: His position is that we naturally tend to associate with like minded people, and so penalize outsiders — a horrible problem in his opinion. He didn’t offer potential solutions, but I do find his observations among us, quite reassuring.


  12. I have carefully re-read Massimo’s essay and can only applaud its insights. What is so strange to me is that the commentary has largely missed the point, failing to engage with Massimo’s arguments.

    The comments, at the start, evidence what seems to me to be an instinctive push against virtue ethics. Why should that be? Perhaps that is because the prevailing zeitgeist is one of moral relativism and against that background virtue ethics seems quaintly old fashioned. The concepts of restraint, balance and self-control seem foreign in a world centred on self-indulgence and opportunism. A related reason might be that the term ‘virtue’ has acquired sexual connotations. It now seems to imply sexual purity, restraint or even abstinence, concepts which are rejected in a world of vigorously unrestrained sexual enjoyment. Thus virtue ethics has become, somewhat unfairly, tainted with unwanted sexual implications.

    What is the most basic character attribute of all? I would argue that it is curiosity. Curiosity is present in all animal species. It is necessary to our search for food, mates, shelter and threats. It would have been present in proto-humans and as their mind awakened this trait grew ever more lively. With curiosity other character traits grew that raised the chances that curiosity uncovered the truth, for truth was foundational to survival. Today we call those character traits the intellectual virtues. The intellectual virtues are the habits and dispositions of our character that enable us to discover the truth. The truth was necessary to our survival in an uncertain and hostile world. Following on this, we developed other character traits that were favourable to social development. These we call the moral virtues.

    All of this likely preceded language development so these dispositions(virtues) were felt but not named and therefore not analysed. They became a deeply embedded part of us that preceded any concept of deontology or moral consequentialism. They are thus the most natural form of ethics. They required no knowledge and no analysis but were powerfully felt.

    As an exercise, imagine that you have written an obituary for a friend, a prominent local businessman. You will give a short account of his life, his contribution to family and community. But if that was all you said it would be dry and even slightly insulting. Instead the text would contain many laudatory terms and if you examined the nature of these terms you would find that they were a catalogue of his virtues. This illustrates that we judge people not by their deontology or moral consequentialism but by their virtues.

    In this sense virtue ethics is our deepest and most basic form of ethics. In our daily life we instinctively judge people by their display of the virtues or their opposite, the vices!


  13. The NY Times has a fascinating article titled “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. New research reveals surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter.

    The article first notes that team working is becoming more important than ever before. Google has researched the question of what characterises a good team. The project was, interestingly, called Project Aristotle.

    They concluded that a good team(other things being equal) was characterised by a sense of psychological safety. This they called a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

    In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.“.
    …[what] the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’

    The receptive sharing of ideas promotes innovation, productivity, cohesion and dedication to team goals.

    Read the above quotes again and you will detect the virtue ethics embedded in them. Team working became ever more important to our species as we developed language and so we developed character traits that were beneficial to team work. Today we call these character traits the virtues.


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