Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sosa and Virtue Epistemology

Last time, I wrote about philosopher Ernest Sosa's argument against coherentism and foundationalism, two ways in which belief might be structured. I commented that I was not entirely clear on his arguments. But I'll restate them and see if I can get more clarity out of it, and then turn to his position which he calls "virtue epistemology."

Coherentism is false, Sosa believes, because when we think about our beliefs that we get from sensory experiences, they must, according to coherentism, be logically related to the rest of the system of beliefs. But it just looks clear that their justification does not require the other beliefs in the system to be justified. The reason I object so much to this point, or find it to be unclear or unsophisticated, is that it seems as though sometimes you do require other beliefs to justify the sensory beliefs. And as far as I am concerned, Wilfrid Sellars has already made this argument when he challenged Roderick Chisholm.

EXAMPLE. You are looking at a cirrus cloud. You think, "I see a cirrus cloud." Your friend asks you what you are looking at and you say, "I'm looking at a cirrus cloud." Your friend asks, "How do you know it's a cirrus cloud?" You say, "Well, cirrus clouds are long and wispy like that one up there. At least that's what I learned about them in school, anyway."

SOSA'S ANALYSIS. If you are looking at a cirrus cloud, and you think, "I see a cirrus cloud," it is not clear how that belief needs any other justification for itself than itself.

OBJECTION. In the above example, the character You expresses other reasons for why he has the belief that he does, and even if he didn't, it would demonstrate that there are several other logical connections that the belief has. My conclusion: coherentism is safe. Nahnuhnahnuh-booboo.

His critique of foundationalism seems equally hopeless and depressing and so I'm not going to look at that again, only to say that he thinks that it is not clear how, if there are basic beliefs based on sensory experiences, the sensory experiences are related to the observable world. But this to me seems like an empirical problem and doesn't demonstrate that they couldn't be. So this argument doesn't succeed too well either.

Anyway, onto Sosa's virtue epistemology. In Sosa's view, knowledge is relative to "an epistemic community."
This is brought out most prominently by the requirement that inquirers have at least normal cognitive equipment (e.g., normal perceptual apparatus, where that is relevant). But our new requirement--that inquirers not lack or blink generally known relevant information--also brings out the relativity. A vacationer in the woods may know that p well enough for an average vacationer, but he won't have the kind of knowledge his guide has. A guide would scornfully deny that the tenderfoot really knows that p. Relative the the epistemic community of guides (for that area) the tenderfoot lacks relevant generally known information, and misses relevant data that the average guide would grasp in the circumstances.
According to Sosa, there are different depths with which you could know about a subject or even a particular fact because of your expertise or lack thereof. I think Sosa's point here can be taken independent of whether Sosa's argument against traditional coherentism and foundationalism succeeds. (I would like to note this is actually contrary to what I said in the last post.) To take another example, I know that force is equal to the mass of an object multiplied by its acceleration but an expert in classical mechanics truly knows the application of this, its relation to other propositions, its real importance as a principle in physics, etc. In Sosa's system, we can rightly understand the honorific term "knowledgable" and it opens up the door for "knowledge" being a kind of honorific term. If this is what virtue epistemology amounts to, so be it.

Sosa also writes about trying to give definition to knowledge using virtue epistemology. But he does not know how one could.
I have no complete list of epistemic principles describing ways of arriving at a position to know or of being blocked from such a position. My suggestion is only that there are such principles, and that in any case we must go beyond the traditional emphasis by epistemology on warrant and reasoning as determinants of knowledge.
Sosa nevertheless gives two rough attempts at what knowledge would be to a virtue epistemologist. One account he gives is
that to understand knowledge we must enrich our traditional repertoire of epistemic concepts with the notion of being in a position to know (from the point of view of a K, e.g., a human being). Thus a proposition is evident (from the point of view of a K) to a subject only if both he is rationally justified in believing it and he is in a position to know (from the K point of view) whether it is true.

...S knows (fro the K point of view) that p iff
(a) it is true that p;
(b) S believes that p; and
(c) there is a non-defective epistemic period (from the K point of view) for S and the proposition that p.
I won't spend too much time unpacking this but just say instead that for Sosa we can look at knowledge as being true belief acquired in some way or other that does not suffer from cognitive or intellectual limitations on the person's part.

Given that I have actually been quite charitable in unpacking this, and as open-minded as possible, I am somewhat sympathetic to the view, and in a couple posts hence will return to what I think of all this stuff. But next is philosopher Donald Davidson.

No comments: