Thursday, April 26, 2012

Epistemology & the Necessity of Intellectual Virtues

In the main, I’ve always found works in epistemology to be fairly and predictably insular in scope, abstract and idealized in a pernicious, not productive way, and thus often irrelevant (or at least not obviously germane) to other fields of philosophy, let alone the social sciences.* Ongoing debates in the field are typically structured among and between “externalists,” “internalists,” “reliabilists,” “coherentists,” and “foundationalists” (well, in truth, there’s very few of those left), perhaps with a few “Wittgensteinians” trying to be heard above the din. Of course there are some exceptions: for example (and my favorites), several works by Nicholas Rescher (as ‘pragmatic idealism’ or ‘cognitive pragmatism’), and a couple of books by Michael Williams, as well one by Meredith Williams which, while strictly speaking perhaps best classified within the “philosophy of mind,” is fraught with epistemological or epistemic implications: Wittgenstein, Mind and Meaning: Towards a Social Conception of Mind (1999). In addition, the emerging field of “social epistemology” strikes me as a welcome development, best represented by Alvin Goldman’s groundbreaking title, Knowledge in a Social World (1999). Not being a professional philosopher, I’m sure there are other works that might be cited from within the profession that would likewise qualify as exceptions to the above (and somewhat crude) generalization.

And thus it’s gratifying to learn (at any rate, for someone who attended Catholic schools, has Buddhist proclivities, and is in some respects a ‘Marxist’) that there’s been no small amount of discontent from within epistemology itself, exemplified in the field of late by those articulating what’s come to be described by its practitioners as “virtue epistemology” (not unrelated, of course, to the contemporary rebirth of virtue ethics). Prominent among those responsible for this recent trend to one degree and in one way or another are Ernest Sosa, Linda Zagzebski, and Alvin Plantinga. In a rhetorically shrewd if not wise move, what is more or less grouped under the rubric of “virtue epistemology” has now been christened “regulative epistemology” by Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood in their book, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (2007). This regulative epistemology aims to be virtuous in several senses, and thus it is intended to include analytic epistemic virtues as well. Furthermore, it is best viewed as a species of practical wisdom, indeed, Roberts and Woods characterize their endeavor “as an attempt to formulate intellectual practical wisdom,” in this instance the analytic “formula” is necessarily complemented by or in conjunction with narrative examples. Axiomatic to their argument is a deep understanding and appreciation of what is meant by the notion of an “intellectual virtue.” And intimately related to this is their proposal to view “the will” as the central epistemic faculty, giving due recognition to the pivotal role played by our “concerns, desires, and emotions” in making “efforts and choices:” “The reason is that the epistemic goods are acquired, not by faculties but by agents [I would have preferred ‘persons’ here], and the will is the locus of our identity as agents.”

From the conclusion to chapter 5 of Intellectual Virtues we find a nice summary of their overall argument:

“The substance of the living of the intellectual life is its practices, they are what the life of the mind is made of. That life is fully as much a matter of activity as the moral life, and aims just as concertedly at goods. The practices that constitute our cognitive life are extremely diverse and interwoven and, it seems, subject to historical evolution, at least in the particularities of the activities and of the auxiliary equipment that we use in pursuing them. But the need for virtues, where the highest goods are concerned, is constant across time. Virtues of character such as humility, patience, tenacity, firmness, love of knowledge, and generosity [‘autonomy,’ to which our authors devote an entire chapter, is missing from this list and thus should be included as well], or at least some approximation or facsimile thereof, need to be exemplified by the practitioners of the practices by which such goods are acquired, maintained, transmitted, and applied.”

Now this may strike some of us as common sense or readily intuitive, but that has not been the case within the field of professional epistemology.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to mention a recent book that, I think, comes close to this idea and ideal of “regulative epistemology” for the social sciences, although the author is not aware of the possible relevance of this notion to his argument, mentioning only in passing epistemology’s comparative neglect of “practical knowledge:”Andrew Sayer’s Why Things Matter: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life (2011).

* Cf. Roberts and Wood: “The one-size-fits-all concept of justification [with regard to the analytic search for the logically necessary and sufficient conditions for propositional knowledge] that analytic epistemologists tended to seek is…a chimera, but virtually all the ideas of justification that were proposed have merit as aspects of a concept of justification. The propositional knowledge on which analytic epistemologists lavished their time is, from our point of view, an abstraction, yet, seen as such, it is an enormously important aspect of knowledge. [….] Our aim…is not to replace all the activities that have characterized epistemology in recent decades, but to let the concept of an excellent intellectual agent reshape those activities and concerns in the direction of analysis that will serve intellectual communities far beyond the borders of professional epistemology.” I think it’s safe to say professional epistemologists have evidenced little concern for what takes place beyond those borders (save, perhaps, in science) for some time now (at least they’ve been remiss in helping us to see the ‘big picture’ in the sense of teasing out the myriad possible implications and ramifications beyond epistemology proper).

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