The Virtues of Knowledge
We are experiencing a collective epistemological crisis. Meritocratic ideals, the culture of professionalism, the ideal of journalistic responsibility and the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise are all called into question. There are always critical voices challenging complacency, corruption and superficiality in our epistemic norms and that is right and proper. And there is a long philosophical tradition of epistemology, or the study of knowledge, dating back in the European tradition to the ancient Greeks, and a great variety of attitudes towards the concepts of “belief,” “knowledge” and “truth” can be found in that tradition as the centuries have passed and cultural and political circumstances have arisen and fallen away. But from time to time the nihilistic impulse gains enough momentum that the dangers that would be posed by a general collapse of epistemic norms become clear. Times such as ours call for reflection on our concepts of “knowledge” and “truth” and on the commitments these concepts entail and the values they reflect.
The current wave of skepticism in our public discourse is part of a larger wave of reactionary populism driven by a sense of alienation from and distrust of professional elites by a significant faction of the population. This is, at least so far, more sinister as a political phenomenon than as an epistemological one. Reactionary populists and opportunistic plutocrats are fomenting confusion and mistrust in pursuit of power and money. The tyrant and the pirates try to overcome authority by subverting authority. This created crisis does not, at least not yet, amount to a society-wide collapse of epistemic norms. The scientific community, for example, feels under attack but the center is holding. The situation of the media is, unfortunately, more interesting, but enormous technological changes are another complicated factor, one beyond anyone’s control. We are not (yet) witnessing the end of civilization as we know it. Nonetheless the potential dangers of nihilistic skepticism are greater than usual.
We typically find philosophers working on the epistemology of ethics: What kind of thinking is ethical thinking? Are there moral facts? How are moral prescriptions justified? And so on. But now we need to spend some time working in the other direction: What can we say about the ethics of epistemology? What can we say about our duties as believing beings? What are the epistemic virtues? The meta-ethical/epistemological question is this: is knowledge valuable for its own sake? Affirming the intrinsic value of knowledge both grounds the normative discussion of the epistemic virtues and sheds new light on that topic.
There is a global skeptical objection that should be dispensed with at the outset. Global skepticism is the view that knowledge is not possible. Global skepticism can be motivated in a variety of ways, some more interesting than others, but asserting that there is no such thing as knowledge is much like asserting that there is no such thing as ethics in the sense that we spend a great deal of our daily lives trying to determine what is true and what is right and no amount of philosophizing, nihilistic or otherwise, is ever going to change that. If the skeptic prohibits our conventional use of the words “knowledge” and “ethics” then we will just have to use new words, say “schmoledge” and “schmethics,” because it is in our quotidian, day-to-day, pre-reflective world where ethics and epistemology press themselves on us in an inescapable, existential way. It is in this world of ordinary life that the bipolarities of right and wrong and truth and falsity are givens, not constructs. So, as the character Garcin says at the end of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, “let’s get on with it.”
We want to think about the intrinsic value of knowledge as distinct from its instrumental value. We can sharpen this distinction with some analysis of the concept of “knowledge.” It might seem obvious that knowledge is true belief, but one can come to have a true belief by accident, say, or perhaps even randomly. For a belief to be knowledge – for us to be able legitimately to say “I know it” – a belief needs, somehow, to be grounded or connected to the external environment, and this connection needs to be causal. These causal connections with the world are what make a belief justified. Think of a causal chain that starts with a real entity, event, property or process of or in the world and ends with the formation of a belief. Links in this chain can include sensory perception, memory, introspection, logical and mathematical cognition, testimony and links further downstream, notably inference and coherence. We can refine our concept of knowledge as justified true belief: belief that is produced by reliable connections with the world.
However, as the philosopher Edmund Gettier famously pointed out, justified true belief may not be enough to constitute knowledge. It is not hard to invent counterfactuals that show this. Say I have a friend and confidant who is the most reliable source of testimony in my life. She has told me countless things over the years, she has never lied to me and everything she has ever told me has been true. She tells me something yet again: this time, she tells me that “P.” As always, what she tells me is true, and I believe her. I now have a justified true belief. But this time, for whatever reason, my friend is lying to me. She doesn’t believe that P, but she wants me to believe what she thinks is a falsehood. Only it is she who is mistaken, and P is in fact true. It doesn’t appear that I know that P (does it?), even though I have a justified true belief that P. If we followed the causal chain from my belief back towards its’ anchor in reality we would find the lie: the causal chain has a broken link. We have refined our concept of knowledge further: knowledge is a causally grounded justified true belief.
Now we can examine our intuitions about the intrinsic value of knowledge. Let’s sharpen the question with a counterfactual that appears more trivial (more connotatively neutral) than the first one but that makes the same point: a newspaper reporter observes that P with his own eyes. He reports to his newspaper the (true) fact that P. The paper publishes the story but at the printers there is a typo and the sentence is printed that not-P. I read the story over my morning coffee but (perhaps because I already suspect that P is true) I miss the typo. I understand the story to be asserting that P. Once again I have a justified true belief but again it’s not causally grounded. If a friend asked, “Where did you read that?” and I handed him the paper he could look at the article and notice that it read “not-P.”
What do you feel? Do you value knowledge for its own sake? Do you feel that it is regrettable when your justified true belief is not causally grounded, even when you don’t know that it is not, even when you never will know that it is not? I cannot dictate other people’s intuitions, but my intuition is strong: I prefer genuine knowledge. I want to know, not just truly believe. Why is this? To use a big word from ethical theory, it feels deontological: it feels like I have, somehow, a duty to prefer knowledge. It also seems that ethics and epistemology are closely related at this “meta” level: my sense of a duty to know feels closely related to my sense of a duty to be good, and to the degree that I feel these duties I also believe that other people should and (normally) do feel them as well. It is significant that these feelings are what philosophers call “non-cognitive”: they do not appear to be the products of logical chains of thought (remember we are putting to the side our instrumental or pragmatic reasons for desiring to know and to be good, in order that we might consider their intrinsic value). They are, instead, intuitions, intuitions that I think most people share.
In fact, it appears that these impulses run deeper than duties. A duty is something I might have without knowing it, something I might have to learn. But while my childhood caregivers taught me and the less-forgiving real world continues to teach me about specific epistemic and ethical virtues (be diligent about finding good sources, always tell the truth) the underlying impulses to goodness and truth per se are innate sentiments that must already be present if the derivative virtues are to be cultivated and sustained. In Plato’s dialogue Theatetus Socrates confronts defenders of several varieties of relativism. He asks why, if the relativists believe that false belief is not possible, are they arguing about anything at all? In seeking the epistemological truth through argument, they are refuting their own premise that truth is not something that can be found. Socrates’ claim is that it is essential human nature to seek the truth and to love the truth. His definition of “philosophy” (which word in the 4th century BCE referred to knowledge production and intellectual activity in general: the love of Sophia, goddess of wisdom) is the discipline of trying to determine what one believes to be true and, having determined that, of stating these beliefs as clearly and courageously as possible (Plato absorbed his teacher Socrates’ message that philosophy must not distinguish the personal from the political: the love of truth is a social virtue as humans are social animals). This activity is not specialized; it is the essential activity that defines the human being. Philosophy defined this way, Socrates wants us to understand, is nothing less than human life itself.
Classical philosophy had much broader aims – and readership – than contemporary philosophy which is one specialized discipline among others. Classical philosophy was conceived as an investigation into what it was to live a good life and how the goal of living a good life might be pursued. This investigation necessarily included a concentrated focus on human nature, human virtues and human failings. Whereas modern ethical philosophy centers judgement on the motives and consequences of discrete actions, classical ethics centers judgement on the whole person and the life that person is living. We call this approach to ethics “virtue ethics” and over the past fifty years or so this approach has enjoyed a revival, co-existing today with “rights” theories (that center judgements on motives) and “consequentialist” theories (that center judgements on outcomes). Over the past twenty years or so virtue theory has spawned another area of philosophical work known as “virtue epistemology,” a small but quite vital literature that, as the name indicates, attempts to delineate the epistemic virtues in a normative spirit.
Plato, like most classical writers, is clearly a virtue theorist at the normative level (in his case rationality, discipline and sobriety are the three virtues that correspond to the three respective parts of the soul). But the foremost classical avatar of virtue theory is undoubtedly Aristotle. With Aristotle as our guide we can develop the present theme of the connection between the “meta” argument for the intrinsic value of knowledge and the normative project of delineating the epistemic virtues.
On Aristotle’s view all human virtues are useful virtues in that all human virtues function as part of the realization of a flourishing human being. It is true that Aristotle, the great categorizer, goes on to distinguish among several groups of virtues notably including what he called the “intellectual” virtues and what he called the “practical” virtues, but this is not to isolate any one group of virtues as essential relative to the rest (Aristotle, like Plato before him, considers rationality to be the essential property that defines the human being). For Aristotle being “good” is being an exemplification of a flourishing member of one’s natural kind (roughly, one’s species): a good horse, a good songbird and a good human will each have their own constitution of virtues. Virtues are potentialities that can contribute to the ultimate actuality which is the realization of one’s nature (the state of eudaimonia, a word usually translated somewhat inadequately as “happiness.” A better word might be the more Stoic “satisfaction”). Virtuous behavior is behavior that serves to convert potential virtue into actual virtue (virtue realized through action). A key Aristotelean concept is phronesis, the synthesis of thought (theory) and action (practice): goodness is not a static property of a person, rather it is realized at all and only those times that virtuous potentiality is converted to virtuous actuality. On this view to say of someone that they are a good person is to say that they are consistently realizing eudaimonia through phronesis.
We now have the conceptual tools to explain the innate desire to be good (and to know the truth) that runs deeper than normative duty: prior to deontology (the study of duty) is teleology, the study of the function of a thing, in the case of a living being the study of the realization of that organism. To be fulfilled as a human being is to realize one’s telos. Understanding Aristotle’s virtue theory this way we can go on to make some further observations about the relationship between virtue epistemology’s normative project and the intrinsic value of knowledge.
Aristotle makes no distinction between qualitative virtues (“That’s a good knife,” “That’s a bad refrigerator”) and moral virtues (“She’s honest,” “He’s intemperate”). Any potential to realize human fulfillment is virtuous, such that the sense of “virtuous” broadens out from our contemporary sense of “ethical” to something closer to our sense of “biological.” Strong and healthy stand side by side with honest and temperate (this is what fascinated the existentialist Nietzsche about ancient Greek ethics). It is enough that a quality that characterizes a flourishing human being is present as a potential that can be cultivated. The reason that virtues are valuable is simply that oneself is valuable: choosing to live is more than merely choosing not to die. (This suggests an interesting discussion of the moral status of suicide that could be developed further: the suicide could be said to have opted out of the normative discussion altogether, if prescriptions are only coherent in the context of the choice to live. That sets an interesting limit on our warrant to characterize suicide as morally transgressive. But this is a digression just now.) If there is any “duty” prior to ethical and epistemic duties it is the duty to live, “living” understood as the project of realizing one’s telos as best one can. All virtues have equal standing, as the realization of each one is intrinsic to whatever degree of fulfillment one manages to attain.
Virtue epistemology is conventionally divided into two areas, the respective territories of the “reliabilists” and the “responsibilists.” The reliabilists focus on virtues that contribute to occurrent justification (the justification provided by immediate experience and thought) such as sensory acuity, logical acuity, memory and attentive focus. We might call these “cognitive” virtues. Responsibilists focus on dispositional virtues that are conducive to knowledge production in the long run such as curiosity, impartiality, open-mindedness and responsibility. We might call these “character” virtues. Any number of commentators have pointed out that these two projects are in no way mutually exclusive, but with Aristotle’s teleological approach in mind we can make two further observations that might expand the discussion in salutary ways.
First, because virtue epistemology is a normative enterprise, any virtue that is cultivable presents an epistemic prescription: right conduct is meeting the ongoing challenge of turning our potentialities into actualities. This prescription extends with equal force across both the cognitive and the character virtues: I can correct my nearsightedness with lenses, I can take steps to correct for my implicit biases (say by adopting a “blind” protocol when grading student papers), I can practice memory-enhancing exercises, I can expose myself through travel to other cultures to increase my open-mindedness and so on. Considered as epistemic normative prescriptions these all carry equal weight. A question suggests itself as to how far one can reasonably be expected to self-improve. (Here we should remind ourselves of Aristotle’s insistence on moderation in all things lest this mischaracterizes him as unreasonably demanding.) For example, are we under some obligation to exercise our memories? All other things being equal, it looks like the short answer is yes, we are, if we accept that our nature as believing beings entails a normative obligation to strive to be knowers.
Which brings us to the second point: granting that for Aristotle the ongoing actualization of potentialities is the definition of human life itself, this definition dissolves any difference between any virtues at all when considered as grounding normative prescriptions. The overall project of Aristotelean virtue theory is neither specifically “ethical” nor “epistemological.” As I said above I think the best word to capture Aristotle’s sense of virtue is a very broadly understood “biological.” (This is a fine example of Aristotle’s fundamental ontological difference with Plato: for Aristotle primary being is the unity of form and matter, a kind of non-reductive materialism, as opposed to Plato’s dualistic ontology of form and matter. Thus, for Aristotle virtue is only present in action.) So not only is there no coherent distinction between the cognitive virtues of the reliabilists and the character virtues of the responsibilists when these respective catalogs of virtues are used to generate normative prescriptions, but there is also no coherent distinction between whatever virtues any virtue epistemologist or virtue ethicist might choose to enumerate and any other human potentialities, normatively speaking.
Normative prescriptions of any kind necessarily presume that we have chosen in the first place to live. Life itself is the process of actualizing our potentialities and this encompasses all possible exercise and improvement of the body and the mind. Plato opposed the Manichean idea that evil existed as an antipode to good. He understood evil as (merely) the absence of good, and so he insisted that no one who truly knew the good could act wrongly. In the same way to exist as a believing being, but without the love of truth, is in a sense an impossibility, something inconceivable, incoherent. Underlying the motivation to love goodness and truth is the necessary, encompassing love of life. To fail to love ourselves in this way (perhaps this is to fail to have the virtue of dignity?) is to fail to truly live.
The counterfactual involving the typographic error is owing to Alvin Goldman (Goldman 1967).
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