Virtue epistemology is a contemporary philosophical approach to epistemology that stresses the importance of intellectual (epistemic) virtues. A distinguishing factor of virtue theories is that they use for the evaluation of knowledge the properties of the persons who hold beliefs in addition to or instead of the properties of propositions and beliefs. Some advocates of virtue epistemology claim to more closely follow what they see as important about virtue ethics, while others see only a looser analogy between virtue in ethics and virtue in epistemology.
Intellectual virtue has been a subject of philosophy since the work of 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 the way virtue ethics focuses on moral agents rather than moral acts.
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, and partly as a response to the intractability of competing analyses of knowledge in response to Edmund Gettier. Ernest Sosa introduced the notion of an intellectual virtue into contemporary epistemological discussion in a 1980 paper called “The Raft and the Pyramid”. 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.
Foundationalism holds 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.
Coherentism and foundationalism developed as a response to the problems with the "traditional" account of knowledge (as justified true belief) developed by Edmund Gettier in 1963. As a result of Gettier's counterexamples, competing theories had been developed by a variety of philosophers, but the dispute between coherentists and foundationalists proved to be intractable. Sosa's paper suggested that virtue may help avoid the disputes between coherentist and foundationalist accounts.
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.
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
Virtue epistemologists differ in the role they believe virtue to play: eliminative virtue epistemology uses the concepts of intellectual virtue and intellectual vice to do away with epistemic concepts like knowledge and justification, while non-eliminative virtue epistemology gives a role for such traditional concepts and uses virtue to provide substantive explanation of those concepts.
Virtue epistemologists differ in what they believe epistemic virtues to be. Some accounts are Aristotelian, drawing a relationship between intellectual virtue and character in a similar way to the way moral virtue is related to character, while "weak" virtue epistemology have an account that doesn't require any particular commitment or cultivation of intellectual virtue. Abrol Fairweather argues that these "weak" virtue epistemologists "merely [use] virtue theory as a novel lexicon for expressing an independent epistemic theory".
Another way of describing the differences in virtue epistemology is to say that 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 reliabilist takes the approach that the process whereby truth is 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. Sosa has two criteria for having a belief to be warranted, or in his words, "fully apt." A belief must satisfy the first condition of being "meta-justified" in which the agent must have hit the truth as such. Furthermore, a belief must have been 'apt' in which the agent must have been displaying his virtuous capacities in claiming such a belief or hitting the truth as such. For example, a hunter must not only be able to hit his target, say a moose, with precision and accuracy, but the shot must have been one that the hunter should have taken.
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.
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.
Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski has proposed a neo-Aristotelian model of virtue epistemology, emphasizing the role of phronesis as an architectonic virtue unifying moral and intellectual virtues even more radically than Aristotle proposed, with each virtue possessing a motivation and an end.
Plantinga's theory of warrant
Alvin Plantinga offers 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.
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.
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