Epistemic Situationism: An Extended Prolepsis

(This is a draft of a section of a paper for Epistemic Situationism, which Abrol Fairweather and I are co-editing for Oxford University Press.)

In 2012, I published a paper questioning the empirical credentials of one brand of virtue epistemology.  Since then, at least ten further publications have addressed this question.[1]  The present volume represents a first attempt by the broader community to grapple with the issues raised by these seminal papers.  Central questions include:

  1. What sorts of epistemic dispositions (i.e., dispositions that lead to the formation, sustaining, modification, integration, and elimination of truth-apt mental states) does today’s best science warrant belief in?[2]
  2. Can the dispositions referred to in the answer to question 1 be considered epistemic virtues or vices?  Are they reliable, unreliable, responsible, irresponsible?
  3. How problematic would it be for various brands of virtue epistemology if epistemic virtues were rare or nonexistent?  By the same token, how problematic would it be for various brands of virtue epistemology if epistemic vices were rife?
  4. In light of the answers to the previous questions, how, if at all, should we reform our ways of attributing (both verbally and mentally) epistemic virtues and vices to ourselves and each other?

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Character as Moral Fiction constitute my most comprehensive attempt to answer these questions thus far.  In the book, I argue:

  1. We have little reason to doubt the reliability of our perceptual faculties, so basic “animal knowledge” (Sosa 2011) derived from these sources stands unchallenged by the empirical literature.  Nevertheless, our inferential dispositions seem to consist largely of unreliable heuristics, and our motivating traits to find the truth and avoid error tend to be at best highly “local” (intellectual-courage-in-the-face-of-non-unanimous-dissent and creativity-while-in-a-good-mood, not “global” intellectual courage or creativity without qualification).[3]  Nevertheless, the plausible, public attribution of global traits tends to function as a self-fulfilling prophecy; for instance, people who are called creative tend to behave more creatively, acquiring what I dubbed factitious virtue.
  2. Heuristics, at least as we actually tend to use them, are not virtues: they are too unreliable.  Local epistemic traits may be virtues, but only in an attenuated sense because they tend to be too normatively uninspiring to merit the title.  Just as being loyal-to-one’s-male friends or faithful-in-one’s-fashion are not virtues, so courage-in-the-face-of-non-unanimous-dissent is not a virtue.  Factitious virtues may not be outright virtues, but they are responsible enough to merit commendation.
  3. Virtue reliabilism, which defines knowledge in terms of reliable capacities to form and sustain beliefs, leads to skepticism about inference (not all inference, but huge swaths of it).  Unless it recognizes factitious virtues, virtue responsibilism, which defines knowledge in terms of epistemically well-motivating traits of character, leads to a broader skepticism about most purported knowledge.
  4. We should withdraw many of our knowledge-claims based on supposedly reliable inferences.  We should go on attributing responsibilist virtues (but not vices) in a very generous way to encourage the development of factitious responsibilist virtues.

Unsurprisingly, these conclusions have met with spirited resistance on a number of fronts.  In the book and related papers, I attempted to anticipate the objections that could be leveled against my arguments – with limited success.  For instance, no one has attempted to make the evolutionary argument from survival (humans survived, so they must be reliable and responsible enough to form accurate beliefs and hence must have virtues) against epistemic situationism.  However, a number of unanticipated criticisms have cropped up.

This work is an extended prolepsis in favor of epistemic situationism, responding to objections that have been recently published or suggested to me by audiences at conferences, by reviewers, and by the students in my graduate seminar.[4]  Below are the objections I’ll be responding to.  Links will be added as the responses are developed:

Objection 1: Virtue Not Required for Knowledge

Objection 2: The “Big Six” to the Rescue

Objection 3: CAPS to the Rescue

Objection 4: Gigerenzer to the Rescue (part 1, part 2, part 3)

Objection 5: Abilism and Epistemic Dependence



[1] Alfano (2013 a, forthcoming a, forthcoming b), Battaly (forthcoming), Brogaard (forthcoming), Fairweather & Montemayor (forthcoming), Miller (forthcoming), Olin & Doris (forthcoming), Pritchard (forthcoming), King (forthcoming).

[2] So far, the connection between epistemic situationism and epistemology has focused on knowledge that; know how has not been explored.

[3] Battaly (forthcoming) draws on the same sources to argue for similar conclusions.  She seems to have arrived at her views independently, if a few years later.

[4] I am extraordinarily grateful to all of these philosophers and psychologists for their attention and charity in responding to my arguments.

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