Thick Epistemology

One way of becoming interested in virtue epistemology is to be interested first in traditional epistemology, and hope that talk of the virtues can be useful for traditional topics such as knowledge and justification.

There is another way, though, that is interesting to think about. Think about the tradition in ethics that asks us to use thicker ethical concepts. We might think the same way in epistemology. One might think that, just as the language of right and good is rather thin, so is talk about justification and rationality. So, maybe, we’d begin elsewhere.

So suppose we begin by thinking about characteristics of admirable cognizers, and develop a list of positive traits: intellectual honesty, originality, creativity, openmindedness, careful reasoning, insight, discernment, sagacity, wisdom, cleverness, lovers of truth, etc. And our list of negative characteristics would include: ignorance, denseness, naivete, credulity, gullibility, obtuseness, dogmatism, narrowmindedness, closemindedness, etc. Then we’d start thinking about the relationships between these qualities, evaluating which are more important than the others, and how they relate to epistemic valuables such as knowledge, understanding, theoretical wisdom, justification, and rationality.

Would this be one result of proceeding in this way? Evaluating people, beliefs, and statements in terms of justificatory status has a kind of conservative streak to it: follow the rules, etc. Focusing on the characteristics themselves might incline one in a different direction. Originality is wonderful, and discernment is not the sort of thing one has just by following a set of epistemic principles. Would thicker epistemology be less conservative?


Thick Epistemology — 8 Comments

  1. What do you mean by “conservative”? I suppose evaluating items solely in terms of their “justificatory status” is a bit limited since there are fewer terms to use, but I don’t suppose that’s what you mean.

    It seems that, typically, people who are, e.g., intellectually honest, open-minded, careful reasoners, insightful, discerning, wise, etc. with respect to various propositions that make up a topic tend to have justified views re. the topic. (It seems like they’d have to; having *enough of* those virtues re. p seems to entail justification/reasonableness re. p). And the opposite seems true about the vices you mention: people who are, re. p, obtuse, dogmatic, narrowminded, avoiding objections and responding to them, etc. tend to not have reasonable attitudes toward p.

    Have people done many analyses of the various virtues in epistemology? I think people have done this in ethics without much concern for their relations (if any) between then and permissible/impermissible actions. I suppose this could be done in epist. without much concern for their relation between believing what one epistemically ought to, maybe. It might be hard to analyze some of these virtues, however, without using epistemic terms: e.g. someone is “discerning” only if they *reasonably* recognize some important stuff and think on that basis…

  2. Hi, Nathan, I meant to contrast the rule-following aspect of justification with displays of the virtues of creativity and originality. Insight and discernment obviously involve alethic notions, but I’m not sure they involve the notion of justification or rationality. It may be that you can’t be irrational or unjustified, though.

    The virtues in question may still tend to produce mental states that are justified or rational, but if they don’t involve these notions, then the tendency would be contingent, I would expect.

    Your last paragraph is along the lines I was thinking of–the idea is to see what these traits are like, not worrying initially about how they connect up with traditional epistemological concerns. One motivation for it is that when we want to praise or blame someone for cognitive achievements, we rarely use the language of traditional epistemology (even when talking about the achievement itself). We talk about being wise, or clever; naive, or dense. It would be interesting to see more work done on the way we actually praise and blame from a purely cognitive point of view.

  3. >Would thicker epistemology be less conservative?

    Surely, in the sense that one would be considering a number of issues that just aren’t raised if all we’re interested in is thinking about traditional questions like ‘Is S justified in believing that p?’. But that point seems obvious. Did you have some other kind of non-conservativeness in mind? (Are you asking, for instance, whether doing thicker epistemology is likely to make us less conservative about things like the extension of ‘justified’?)

  4. Hi Carrie,

    No, what I meant was that if we investigate the virtues independently of their connection to justification, and rank them in terms of importance (however that is supposed to be done), would be end up favoring beliefs and belief forming practices that yield a much broader range of approved claims that when we think about justification and procedures that yield justification. Probably the most obvious case is with the virtue of originality. If that were the most important virtue, we’d end up favoring lots of beliefs for which justification was lacking. Does that help?

  5. By ‘favouring’ do you mean ‘ assessing as epistemically virtuous’? If so, you seem to be asking whether we would be less conservative with the extension of ‘epistemically virtuous belief’. Maybe, but I guess a virtue epistemologist who wanted to say that the justified beliefs are just the epistemically virtuous ones would say all you were thereby doing was being less conservative with the extension of ‘justified’.

    It would sound strange to extend ‘justified’ to cover beliefs that were virtuous just because they were highly original. But actually I’m not clear yet that originality is an *epistemic* virtue. Granted that it is an admirable trait for cognizers to have, but is that sufficient?

  6. Carrie, on your last question, I agree it’s a bit strange to think of originality as an epistemic virtue. But suppose we begin thinking, not about knowledge and the like, but just about cognitive achievements or activities of a purely intellectual sort (ie., not those that are rated high because they have practical benefits, or are politically useful, etc.). Among the items we’d rank highly, I assume, would be knowledge. But we’d also rank original ideas very highly as well. If we funnel all of the highly ranked items through the sieve of whether they count as knowledge, most of them will get thrown out. But what if we don’t do that. What if we instead think about the kind of intellectual character that would lead to the items looked on favorably (that’s my weasel-word here!). In particular, I’m thinking about a total character as an array of dispositions of varying strengths: what total character or characters would we rank the most highly? I would think we’d end up with dispositions toward knowledge and justification being part of the total character, but I wonder if we’d want those dispositions to be the strongest. I don’t really know here, I’m just wondering out loud…

  7. I take it we already look ‘favourably’ on originality in *some* sense, so I’m still not quite sure I see what the thick epistemologist would be less conservative than anyone else about. It might be a good thing for philosophers to think more about all the good traits of thinkers, rather that focussing too much on justification and knowledge, but that just seems to be an invitation to expand our horizons rather than a revision to any view. Is that the idea?

  8. Yes, Carrie, that’s basically it. If we expand our horizons, and this culminates in some rank-ordering of intellectual virtues (how this would be done, I don’t really have any idea at this point), then the dispositions toward justified belief and knowledge might be lower on the list than some other virtues. If originality and creativity were ranked higher, then the rules-following constitutive of justified belief would be overridden by more important considerations.

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