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.