Tuesday, 20 October 2020

From Bad Thinkers to Vice Epistemology

This post is by Ian James Kidd, Heather Battaly, and Quassim Cassam. They present their new book, Vice Epistemology, which was published by Routledge five days ago.



Ian Kidd
Ian Kidd

Study of the human epistemic failings has been a staple theme of philosophy since antiquity. Ancient Greek, Indian, and Chinese philosophers were all concerned with ignorance, stupidity, and prejudiced and biased ways of thinking – ones opposed to such high-fidelity philosophical goods as wisdom, certain knowledge, or rationality. Attempted amelioration of those epistemic failings has been an aim of ethics, logic, and the more overtly ‘therapeutic’ forms of philosophical practice, too. Obviously, our world remains populated by human beings with very many epistemic failings, a glum fact reiterated by contemporary research in empirical psychology, philosophy of mind and epistemology. Such work offers a whole range of conceptual tools for the study of those failings and one of the newest is that of an epistemic vice.


Vice Epistemology
Vice Epistemology


Epistemic vices are character traits that make us bad thinkers. Usually we think of vices and virtues in relation to ethics. The vices include cruelty and dishonesty and selfishness – failings of character that make us bad people and which are corrected by the cultivation of virtues and other excellences of character, like compassion and honesty. But we shouldn’t confine ‘vices’ to moral failings of character. We speak of vices of the mind, too, like arrogance, dogmatism, and closed-mindedness (“He’s so arrogant!”, “She’s so dogmatic!”). Alongside those examples, there are also less-obvious epistemic vices, with names like ‘epistemic insouciance’ and ‘epistemic self-indulgence’.


Quassim Cassam
Quassim Cassam


Over the last decade, a new subdiscipline has emerged devoted to studying the nature, identity, and significance of epistemic vices – vice epistemology. It’s sister discipline is virtue epistemology, which focuses on the virtues of the mind. Most modern work in vice epistemology falls into three sorts, each of them represented in our upcoming edited collection, Vice Epistemology

First, there’s the foundational work devoted to conceptual, normative, and empirical issues about epistemic vices – like the relation of epistemic vices to epistemic virtues, ethical vices and to related concepts like implicit bias. 


Heather Battaly
Heather Battaly


Second, the identification and analysis of specific vices, whether the familiar ones, like dogmatism, or the more esoteric ones, like epistemic hubris. After all, there’s no good reason to suppose that we have a clear view of all of the epistemic vices to which we are prone, given the historical contingency of our inherited conceptual resources.

A third sort of work is what might be called applied vice epistemology – the effort to put these conceptual tools to work in the world. An obvious reason we’re interested in epistemic vices is because they play a role in the social and political world. We’re sadly living through a golden age for arrogance, dogmatism, and insouciance about the truth. It’s no coincidence that contemporary vice epistemology takes so many of its case studies from modern politics. But epistemic vices are also relevant to more abstract issues in ethics, epistemology, and psychology, too. Whatever ones’ own interests, our hope as vice epistemologists is to better understand our stubborn and entrenched epistemic failings.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Concept of Loneliness

This post originally appeared as a Birmingham Perspective on the University of Birmingham website, authored by Valeria Motta. In the post, Valeria summarises her view of loneliness on which she was also recently interviewed by Radical Philosophy's host, Beth Matthews (podcast available, part 1 and part 2), for Melbourne 3CR Community Radio.


Valeria Motta


How is loneliness defined? And what do these definitions say about what we understand of the phenomenon? Over the last few decades, an increasing amount of empirical research has involved a range of definitions of loneliness. Distinctions have been made between loneliness and social isolation, and between loneliness and solitude. Many researchers acknowledge that loneliness and social isolation (a state of no physical contact with other people) are different constructs. However, this theoretical distinction is not always fully reflected in research on loneliness, let alone in interventions to lessen it. Interventions with the goal to increase social interactions carry the assumption that loneliness is the same as social isolation because they provide social exposure in response. This results in the widely recognized distinction between loneliness and social isolation being undermined.

Making clear distinctions between loneliness and social isolation is particularly important in times of COVID-19 because new terminology (such as ‘social distancing’) is starting to appear in recent research to refer to experiences that may have some similarities with loneliness and social isolation but that are not exactly the same.

Research has provided different definitions of loneliness. Some have focused on the multifaceted nature of loneliness - addressing the interaction between specific behaviours (different forms of inhibited sociability), emotions (feeling unloved or unwanted) and thoughts of negative and self-depreciating nature. While other research has focused on cognitive aspects (e.g. the discrepancy between the relationships we wish we had and those we perceive we have). In such definitions, loneliness is also regarded as a subjective experience. However, the this subjective aspect is often described as something ‘private’, which obscures the experiential features that are essential to understanding loneliness.

A common thread that runs through all the current definitions is the tendency to focus on social distress. This originated with awareness that social relations play a fundamental role in psychological well-being. It has led mental health researchers to integrate work on loneliness and social support. However, the social disruption of loneliness is just one aspect of the experience. Sociality or being around others is affected in many dysfunctions such as depression and social anxiety. Therefore, excessive focus on social relations when we define loneliness does not allow us to investigate the particularities of the experience and to distinguish loneliness from other experiences that are as socially disruptive.

My research is about loneliness and solitude, but I am not just interested in people’s experiences of these phenomena. I am also interested in understanding the phenomena at a conceptual level. And for this I’ve been carrying out research interviews with groups of people who have different perspectives on those phenomena. What makes my research different from other people’s research on loneliness is that it is a combination of philosophical argument and phenomenological-psychological investigation. 

In the analysis I discovered how seemingly different descriptions were pointing at some characteristics that could be structural of those experiences. I discovered interesting things. Loneliness includes experiential abnormalities that may result in, or be provoked by, different alterations in our experience of time, or even by fluctuations in the intensity, quality and meaning of loneliness, according to context. Another important aspect to note about the experience of loneliness is that the different forms of contact that a person has with her physical environment may have consequences for how she interacts with the social environment, for whether this evolves into a social disruption problem.

Further research needs to disclose the mechanisms involved in our capacity to adapt to different environments, and analysis on whether such a capacity allows for social adaptation.

Social disruption is not the sole ground for research on loneliness: there may be other more fundamental aspects at the onset of the experience. Understanding absences and other aspects of loneliness experiences seem likely to be important features. We need definitions of loneliness that address a wide array of life events and of disturbances in the subjective structure. Exploring the issues raised here would have implications for our terminology and our future research on types of loneliness. And these would in turn allow for the design of new treatments and interventions.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Affective Instability and Paranoia

This post is by me (Lisa Bortolotti), summarising a paper I wrote with Matthew Broome on how affective instability may be a causal factor in paranoia. It was published in a special issue of Discipline Filosofiche on Philosophical Perspectives on Affective Experience and Psychopathology, edited by Anna Bortolan and Alessandro Salice.


Matthew Broome

Most accounts of paranoia rely on cognitive biases and perceptual anomalies. However, recent empirical research has shown that affective instability may play an important role. 

What is affective instability? Unexpected changes of mood include emotional dysregulation, lability, impulsiveness, and swings. Collating the main overlapping dimensions, definitions, and their measurement scales, a recent systematic review proposed that affective instability is “rapid oscillations of intense affect, with a difficulty in regulating these oscillations or their behavioural consequences” (Marwaha et al. 2013). 

How does affective instability impact on paranoia? In large samples, recent research has identified some interesting correlations and potential causal relationships: affective instability predicted not only the onset of paranoid ideation, but also its maintenance. This association between affective instability and paranoia remains after controlling for numerous confounds, and affective instability does not impact in the same way on other phenomena. For instance, no association is found between affective instability and auditory hallucinations.

Affective instability might explain some of the connections between childhood sexual abuse and psychosis (Marwaha et al. 2014) and between bullying, psychotic disorder and psychotic symptoms (Catone et al. 2015), with bullying doubling the risk of paranoia.

How should we think about the causal role that affective instability plays in relation to paranoia? There are several options we examine in the paper:

  1. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is biological, with a single mechanism causally responsible for both affective instability and paranoia.
  2. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is mediated by behavioural effects. 
  3. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is mediated by the way the person appraises the world or appraises the self. 
  4. the causal link between affective instability and paranoia is determined by the person’s lifestyle rather than the person's behaviour.

Lisa Bortolotti


Acknowledging and further examining the causal contribution of affective instability to paranoia is not incompatible with the main models of delusion formation currently discussed in the empirical and philosophical literature.

It has also significant implications for prevention and treatment. For instance, instability of mood would need to be addressed in the attempt to prevent psychotic episodes. People at risk of psychosis would need to be supported in implementing lifestyle changes that are conducive to an improvement in emotional regulation, such as sleeping better.