- Virtue epistemology
Virtue epistemology is a contemporary philosophical approach to
epistemologythat stresses the importance of intellectual (epistemic) virtues. It combines the central tenants of virtue theory (also called “ virtue ethics”), with classical epistemological approaches.
Intellectual virtue has been a subject of philosophy since the works of
Platoand Aristotle, but virtue epistemology is a development in the contemporary analytic tradition. It is characterized by efforts to solve problems of special concern to modern epistemology, such as justification and reliabilism, by directing attention on the knower as agent in a manner similar to virtue ethics.
The Raft and the Pyramid
The development of virtue epistemology was partly inspired by a recent renewal of interest in virtue concepts among moral philosophers.
Ernest Sosaintroduced the notion of an intellectual virtue into contemporary epistemological discussion in a 1980 paper “The Raft and the Pyramid”.Sosa, Ernest. “The Raft and the Pyramid: Coherence versus Foundations in the Theory of Knowledge.” "Midwest Studies in Philosophy" 5, (1980): 3-25.] Sosa argued that an appeal to intellectual virtue could resolve the conflict between foundationalists and coherentists over the structure of epistemic justification. Sosa sought to bridge the gap and create a unity between these two different epistemological theories. Foundationalismholds that beliefs are founded or based on other beliefs in a hierarchy, similar to the bricks in the structure of a pyramid. Coherentism, on the other hand, uses the metaphor of a raft in which all beliefs are not tied down by foundations but instead are interconnected due to the logical relationships between each belief. Sosa found a flaw in each of these schools of epistemology.
Coherentism only allows for justification based on logical relations between all the beliefs within a system of beliefs. However, because perceptual beliefs may not have many logical ties with other beliefs in the system, the coherentist account of knowledge can be said to be inadequate to accommodate the importance normally attributed to perceptual information. On the other hand, Sosa also found problems in the foundationalist approach to epistemology. Foundationalism arguably encounters a problem when attempting to describe how foundational beliefs relate to the sensory experiences that support them.
Virtue epistemology replaces formulaic expressions for apprehending knowledge, such as “S knows that p”, by amending these formulas with virtue theory applied to intellect, where virtue then becomes the fulcrum for assessing potential candidates of “knowledge”. This substitution raises problems of its own, however. If the same level of uncertainty about the accuracy in creating a formula for testing knowledge equally applies to the authenticity of virtue then one cannot know if the target virtue is credible. Some virtue epistemologists use reliabilism as a basis for belief justification, stressing reliable functioning of the intellect.Greco, J. "Agent Reliabilism." J. Tomberlin (ed.) "Philosophical Perspectives" 13,(1999): 273–96.] Greco, J. "Putting Skeptics in their Place", Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.]
The ideas put forth in the area of virtue epistemology are consistent with some of the ideas present in
contextualism. Several areas of contextual epistemology attack the problem of knowledge from a very objective standpoint. Virtue epistemology attempts to simplify the analysis of knowledge by replacing certain abstractions involved in the pursuit of the highest level of knowledge with flexible and contextual instances. Specifically, it leaves room for cognitive relativism. This degree of reliability is not constant; it can change depending on the context. Under this view, a well-functioning intellectual faculty is a necessary condition for the formation of knowledge. This is quite different from other areas of epistemology because it takes the state of an individual's intellect into account. As a result of this, social context also has the ability to alter knowledge. Social contexts change over time, making it necessary for the beliefs and knowledge to change with it.
In addition, virtue epistemology, similar to virtue ethics, is based on the intellectual qualities in relation to the individual as opposed to the quality of the belief; virtue epistemology is person-based, rather than belief-based. Consequently, virtue ethics can also stress “epistemic responsibility,” that is, an individual is held responsible for the virtue of their knowledge-gathering faculties.
Varieties of virtue epistemology
There are two concurrent modes of thought in contemporary virtue epistemology, with one side favoring the reliabilist account, and one favoring a "responsibilist" account in which the epistemic obligations of the agent play a key role.
The virtue reliabilists take the approach that the process whereby
truthis garnered must be reliable. However, the stress of the reliability is not placed upon the mechanism of justification. Instead, the degree of reality-tracking ability determines how virtuous the individual's intellect is, and therefore how good one's knowledge is.
For Sosa, the more virtuous faculties are related to direct sensory perception and memory, and less virtuous capacities are ones related to beliefs derived from the primary memory or sense experience. For another figure in virtue epistemology,
John Greco, an epistemic virtue is given a much wider definition. His account enables the possibility for different people to have different subjective virtues. The only requirement is that the intellectual virtue inclines the believer towards the truth.
In virtue responsibilism, the emphasis is not on primary mechanisms such as perception and memory. Instead, certain intellectual traits are valued as more virtuous than others. These can be creativity, inquisitiveness, rational rigor, honesty, or a number of other possibilities. Generally, these theories are normative in nature. A few different approaches are taken.
Some, such as
Lorraine Code, think that intellectual virtues involve having the correct cognitive character and epistemic relation to the world rooted in a social context. She sees the acquisition of correct knowledge about the world as the primary “good,” and the end towards which our intellectual efforts should be oriented, with the desire for truth as the primary motivating factor for our epistemological virtues.Code, Lorraine. "Epistemic Responsibility", Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Brown University Press, 1987.] James Montmarquet's theory of intellectual virtue is similar to Code's, but specifically defines additional intellectual virtues in order to defuse the potential dogmatism or fanaticism that is compatible with Code's desire for truth. The primary virtue is conscientiousness, which focuses on the correct end of intellectual living. In order to obtain conscientiousness, it is important to maintain impartiality, sobriety, and courage.Montmarquet, J.A. "Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility", Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993.] Linda Trinkaus Zagzebskihas proposed a neo-Aristotelian model of virtue epistemology, emphasizing the role of phronesis as an archetectonic virtue unifying moral and intellectual virtues even more radically than Aristotle proposed, with each virtue possessing a motivation and an end.Zagzebski, Linda. "Intellectual Motivation and the Good of Truth.", in "Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and Epistemology". eds. M. DePaul and L. Zagzebski, 135–54, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.,]
Plantinga's theory of warrant
Alvin Plantingaoffers another theory of knowledge closely related to virtue epistemology. According to him, knowledge is warranted if one's intellectual faculties are operating as they are designed to. That is, knowledge is valid if it is obtained through the correct operation of the faculties of the intellect which are designed to have an inherent ability, because they are designed that way, to capture and produce true beliefs.Plantinga, Alvin. "Warrant and Proper Function", New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.]
Potential advantages of virtue epistemology
Some varieties of virtue epistemology that contain normative elements, such as virtue responsibilism, can provide a unified framework of normativity and value. Others, such as Sosa's account, can circumvent Cartesian skepticism with the necessity of externalism interacting with internalism. In this same vein, and because of the inherent flexibility and social nature of some of types of virtue epistemology, social conditioning and influence can be understood within an epistemological framework and explored. This flexibility and connection between internal and external makes virtue epistemology more accessible.Zagzebski, Linda (1998, 2005). Virtue epistemology. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved May 01, 2008, from http://0-www.rep.routledge.com.csulib.ctstateu.edu:80/article/P057SECT3 (requires member login)]
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*_____, and Abrol Fairweather. “Introduction.” In "Virtue Epistemology: Essays on Epistemic Virtue and Responsibility," ed. Abrol Fairweather and Linda Zagzebski, 3-14. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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* [http://www.iep.utm.edu/v/VirtueEp.htm Virtue epistemology at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
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