Virtue epistemology is the view that cognitive traits like intellectual virtues and cognitive abilities play an important role in an account of knowledge and other epistemic standings.
Traditionally, the relevant cognitive traits have been construed along individualistic lines as being exclusive properties of the individual and as having a physical basis resident inside her bodily boundaries. The problem is that epistemic individualism is false. There are cases where an individual’s exercise of cognitive ability would not normally suffice for knowledge and yet she knows regardless due to the epistemic assistance provided by social features of her environment, such as when we rely on news organizations for the acquisition of testimonial knowledge. And there are cases where an individual’s exercise of cognitive ability would normally suffice for knowledge and yet she lacks knowledge on account of physical features of her environment, such as when an individual ends up believing truly due to some environmental happenstance despite exercising what would normally be reliable abilities. Both the former positive epistemic dependence and the latter negative epistemic dependence pose a serious problem for epistemic individualism. But neither shows that virtue epistemology is unsustainable. Rather, these dependence theses call for an anti-individualistic construal of virtue epistemology.
The goal of this research project is to explore what implications epistemic dependency has for our understanding of intellectual humility and its role in a virtue epistemology. The project aims to use our critique of individualist virtue epistemology as a basis from which to offer a positive proposal about what an anti-individualist virtue epistemology should look like. This exploration has both a theoretical and an applied dimension. On the theoretical side, we will argue that any anti-individualistic version of virtue epistemology must incorporate a particular form of intellectual humility. Since the acquisition of knowledge is hostage to an environmental contribution beyond the individual’s own cognitive agency, she ought not be overly self-reliant in her epistemic inquiries. Instead the individual should structure her inquiries in such a way as to exploit environmental features which are favorable for knowledge. In doing so, she will avoid knowledge-undermining negative epistemic dependency and make the most of knowledge-conducive positive epistemic dependency.
On the applied side, we will examine the practical ramifications of an anti-individualistic virtue epistemology which has intellectual humility at its heart along three inter-related fronts. First, we will explore the extent to which such an anti-individualistic virtue epistemology can embrace the possibility of extended cognition — i.e., cognitive processes which extend beyond the skin-and-skull to take in technological instruments or informants. Does intellectual humility of the kind that we advocate license the use of extended cognition in knowledge acquisition? Second, we will examine the situationist challenge to virtue epistemology and evaluate how this challenge fares when applies to our anti-individualistic rendering of this view.
Finally, third, we will consider the implications of our project for the epistemology of education. Our claim is that the right way to conceive of the role of epistemic virtue in educational development is along anti-individualistic lines such that individuals enhance not only their ‘on-board’ cognitive abilities but also, in line with the conception of epistemic humility we set out, their use of ‘off-board’ cognitive resources, such as technology and their social environment.
Part of the Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility Project at Saint Louis University
Principal Investigators: Prof Jesper Kallestrup & Prof Duncan Pritchard
Local Members: Dr J. Adam Carter & Dr Orestis Palermos