Virtue epistemology, anyone?

Philosophy as a Way of Life
8 min readSep 16, 2021
[image: knowledge Venn diagram, Wikimedia]

For years now I’ve been interested in virtue ethics, not just from a theoretical standpoint, but also in terms of everyday practice. But did you know that there is an approach to epistemology that is also based on the concept of virtue? I find this to be particularly interesting because it unifies my two major interests: practical philosophy and scientific skepticism.

To dig a bit deeper, let me summarize and make a few comments on John Greco’s and John Turri’s excellent and comprehensive entry on virtue epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As the authors state at the onset, virtue epistemology comes in a variety of flavors, but all such flavors share two commitments:

“First, epistemology is a normative discipline. Second, intellectual agents and communities are the primary source of epistemic value and the primary focus of epistemic evaluation.”

The first thing to notice, therefore, is that virtue epistemologists’ attitude is at odds with W.V.O. Quine’s famous suggestion that epistemology should become a branch of psychology: descriptive, not prescriptive. That said, however, virtue epistemologists are sensitive to input from the empirical sciences, first and foremost psychology, as any sensible philosophical school ought to be.

A virtue epistemological approach — just like its counterpart in ethics — shifts the focus away from a “point of view from nowhere” and onto specific individuals and communities, which are treated as epistemic agents. As Greco and Turri put it:

“Virtue ethics explains an action’s moral properties in terms of the agent’s properties, for instance whether it results from kindness or spite. Virtue ethics explains a cognitive performance’s normative properties in terms of the cognizer’s properties, for instance whether a belief results from hastiness or excellent eyesight, or whether an inquiry manifests carelessness or discrimination.”

You can already begin to appreciate that this is indeed a very different way of looking at epistemology, again like virtue ethics is a very different way of looking at ethics when contrasted with dominant paradigms such as deontology and utilitarianism. And just like virtue ethics has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, so too virtue epistemologists can claim a long…

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Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/