Objective Expertise and Functionalist Constraints (Part One), Michel Croce

SERRC —  May 16, 2019 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Michel Croce, University of Edinburgh, michel.croce@ed.ac.uk.

Croce, Michel. “Objective Expertise and Functionalist Constraints.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 25-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. This essay is published in two separate posts, the second of which is available at this link. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-496

Image by Bill Kerr via Flickr / Creative Commons


Christian Quast has recently embarked on the project of systematizing the debate about the notion of expertise, an extremely fascinating and important issue addressed by scholars of many disciplines yet still in need of an interdisciplinary take. He sheds light on a number of relevant features of this notion and defends what he calls a “balanced” account of expertise, namely one that defines this concept in light of an expert’s dispositions, manifestations of their dispositions, and social role or function.

In doing so, Quast argues against three versions of reductionism about expertise: ReductionismF, which reduces expertise to the function an expert fulfills in a community; ReductionismM, which confuses expertise with the manifestation of an expert’s competence; and ReductionismD, in which expertise boils down to possessing suitable dispositions in a specific domain—that is, practical abilities or epistemic properties such as knowledge, true beliefs, or understanding.

As an attempt at bringing together interdisciplinary discussions of a specific topic, Quast’s project is ambitious and provides a genuine contribution to the ongoing discussions around the topic of expertise in philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences. Inevitably, Quast’s rich analysis and original proposal raise a number of worries that deserve to be further inspected.

In this critical reply, I offer some considerations that put pressure on Quast’s balanced account and hopefully help anyone interested in this debate take a step forward toward explaining what it takes for one to be an expert. The reply is structured as follows. First, I argue that his allegedly balanced view is liable to a potentially compromising tension between its function component and the ingredients of objective expertise (§1).

Then, I show that Quast’s threefold characterization of an objective expert is too strong, as it imposes conditions that several individuals whom we would consider experts are unable to fulfill (§2). Finally, I provide reasons in favor of endorsing an objective account of expertise in light of some specific features of our society, and show how this account can take into due consideration the different services experts ordinarily perform (§3).

Against a Balanced Account of Expertise

The first consideration I want to offer in response to Quast is that, to put it simply, he cannot have his cake and eat it too. Quast devotes a good amount of his paper to convincing us that the aforementioned reductionist accounts of expertise are flawed and that a more plausible story of what it takes for one to be an expert has to rely upon “an entangled interrelationship” between an expert’s dispositions and the contextual service function they perform in a community (2019, 412). In this section, I purport to show that such an entangled relationship of dispositions and functions on his balanced approach is largely problematic.

Let us recall Quast’s comprehensive definition of an expert, which is offered right at the end of his article:

(ExpertF-C-M) Someone e is an objective expert in contrast to some client c within a certain domain d only if e is undefeatedly disposed to fulfill a particular service function in d for c adequately at the moment of assessment (412).

At first glance, Quast’s move is attractive. In the end, we usually think of experts as subjects who are more competent than most people in a domain,[1] but, at the same time, we grant one the status of an expert (i) based on their social role and (ii) against a relevant contrast class of individuals who are unable to provide a similar service. In contrast, both ReductionismF and ReductionismD are liable to counterexamples.

The former is wrongly committed to granting the status of an expert translator to a subject who manages a translation-services company by delegating any job to unknown freelancers and lacks any translating skills (402). The latter is wrongly committed to grant the status of a wine expert to an individual who can correctly estimate the value of a wine cellar without having the ability or the willingness to provide an explanation of their evaluation (407).

In contrast, neither the manager nor the wine consultant satisfies the requirements of expertise on the balanced account. The former is not an expert, because he lacks the dispositions required to provide translating services—that is, knowledge of at least two languages, translating skills, and the like. The latter is not an expert, because her competence to assess the value of wine cellars gets defeated by her inability or unwillingness to give an account of her services at the moment of assessment (407).[2]

Dispositions and Functions in Tension

However, a closer inspection of Quast’s proposed view of expertise reveals a tension between the disposition component and the function component. Consider the disposition component first and, in particular, his analysis of objective expertise.

He conceives of objective expertise as encompassing the following three elements: (i) primary competence, which relates to an expert’s reliability in delivering the services they are supposed to provide; (ii) secondary competence, which relates to an expert’s ability to explain their services to a client, thereby establishing and fostering mutual trust; and (iii) intellectually virtuous character, which ensures that an expert is willing to manifest both the above competences when appropriate.

For the time being, let’s set aside a reasonable concern one might have about Quast’s unduly narrow characterization of the role intellectual-character virtues play in his account of objective expertise.[3]

The balanced account is quite demanding, as according to it someone is an objective expert insofar as they are competent in a given domain, able to provide their clients with tailored explanations of their services, and willing to do so in the appropriate circumstances. Going back to the wine-consultant case, it should be evident that the reason why the consultant might fail to be an expert is that she lacks secondary competence, intellectual virtues, or both, as her inability or unwillingness to share any considerations about her estimate of the wine cellar with the client demonstrates.

As anticipated, on the balanced account these considerations about objective expertise need to be balanced, or implemented, with further remarks on the service function of experts. Here Quast takes quite a concessive route and offers the case of a “private expert”: in the example, Christian Quast’s wife asks him to find someone who can fix or replace a leaky drain pipe; he approaches the issue by relying on his father-in-law, whose craft hobby enables him to solve the problem (410).

Quast is ready to admit that his father-in-law is more of an expert than himself and his wife, yet he goes so far as to concede that the man satisfies the requirements of a function-based account of expertise.

The function component plays a key role in this account, in that the service his father-in-law fulfills determines

(i) a relevant contrast class of individuals who lack the disposition to perform a specific function—that is, the class composed of Christian and his wife;

(ii) a proper characterization of the domain of expertise, namely that of replacing leaky drain pipes;

(iii) the degree of reliability required for Christian’s father-in-law to fulfill the function—that is, Christian’s own standards for replacement of leaky drain pipes;

(iv) a range of similar situations in which the man is supposed to be able to deliver his services; and

(v) minimum conditions for him to fulfill the individual requirements of objective expertise, which in this case require relative competence to repair the leaky drain pipe at the Quasts’ place.

Thus, on Quast’s balanced account, possession of expertise depends on contextual factors, such as the specifics of the contrast class of laypeople and the situation in which expertise is ascribed, as well as on practical factors, such as the needs of the relevant clients and the urgency of the required service. These elements determine whether a hobbyist-craftsperson is an expert in repairing leaky drain pipes or a wine consultant is an expert in value assessment of wine cellars.

Problems of Balance in Expertise

Unfortunately, the “balanced” account emerging from these components is less tenable than one might have initially thought. The first problem is that it is hard to make sense of the notion of objective expertise on such a functionalist account. For possession of objective expertise in a domain becomes hostage to two inherently relative elements, namely (i) the service someone is disposed and willing to fulfill for (ii) a community—or contrast class, to stick with Quast’s vocabulary.

On standard comparative accounts of expertise, (ii) obviously plays a major role, as possession of expertise merely amounts to being more of an expert in a (broader or narrower) domain than some group of people and therefore expertise reduces to an entirely comparative notion.

In such a perspective, both Christian’s father-in-law and a plumbing engineer are experts in repairing leaky drain pipes although the latter’s competence is much broader than the former’s. For each of them is more of an expert than the respective contrast class, which includes Christian and his wife in the former case versus, say, most people in the engineer’s town, district, or state in the latter case. Clearly, though, this diagnosis comes at the cost of giving up on the inquiry into the objective requirements of expertise.

Despite including (ii) in his account of expertise, Quast purports to endorse a view that makes room for objective expertise. Thus, he has to prevent this relative condition from delivering the standard comparative diagnosis in situations such as the leaky-drain-pipes one.

He does so through the service-function element—that is, (i)—by arguing that one is an objective expert insofar as they are undefeatedly disposed to serve a relevant need of the respective community or contrast class. Thus, on the balanced account we can still attribute objective expertise to both Christian’s father-in-law and a plumbing engineer as long as they can fix leaky drain pipes in the respective community or contrast class.

I am unpersuaded by this move for two reasons. The first is that introducing a relative element such as (i) does not neutralize the anti-objective effect of (ii); rather, it is likely to intensify such an effect by adding a further relative variable to the account. The second is that the only way for Quast to grant expertise to his father-in-law and a plumbing engineer is to impose odd restrictions on domains of expertise.

Specifically, he has to concede that his father-in-law is an expert because he serves the community composed of Christian and his wife by doing something like “repairing leaky drain pipes at the Quasts’ place” or “repairing leaky drain pipes of some kind.” In contrast, the plumbing engineer is an expert because he serves a wider community by, say, “repairing leaky drain pipes of any kind.”

This move would thus generate an unnecessary proliferation of domains of expertise depending on the specific needs of any relevant contrast class. For example, my auntie Renata, who helps most inhabitants of a rural village in Liguria react to (i.e., “like”) and comment on the content appearing in their Facebook news feed, would possess objective expertise in something like “adding likes and comments on posts on Facebook” relative to the contrast class composed of the citizens of Bevena, although her competence regarding social networks ends pretty much there.

These considerations show that the balanced account narrows the notion of expertise to the point that we lose our grip on what is objective about an expert’s competence. To avoid this result and save both the functionalist spirit of his view and its context sensitivity, Quast should abandon the idea of making room for objective expertise and endorse an entirely comparative account. This is why, in a word, Quast cannot have his cake and eat it too.

Contact details: michel.croce@ed.ac.uk


Coady, David. 2012. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. Malden (MA): Wiley-Blackwell.

Croce, Michel. 2019. “On What It Takes to Be An Expert.” The Philosophical Quarterly 69(274): 1-21.

Fuller, Steve. Post-Truth: Knowledge as A Power Game. London: Anthem Press.

Goldman, Alvin. 2001. “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63: 85-110.

Lynch, Michael. 2016. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in The Age of Big Data. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Nichols, Tom. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quast, Christian. 2018. “Towards A Balanced Account of Expertise.” Social Epistemology 32(6): 397-419.

Vosoughi, Soroush; Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. (2018). “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science 359 (6380): 1146-1151.

[1] It may be helpful to note that this competence may boil down to different properties and dispositions depending on the specifics of the domain under consideration. For instance, the competence of an expert carpenter might involve a good deal of experience, practical skills, and know-how, whereas the competence of an expert in contemporary history might be mostly based on great instruction, analytical skills, and theoretical understanding of the extant literature and recent historical events.

[2] In the analysis of his wine-expert case, Quast points out that we might ascribe a default expertise to the wine consultant yet withdraw our attribution of expertise if she refuses to provide suitable explanations of her evaluation (407–8).

[3] As I have argued elsewhere (see Croce 2019, §§4–5), we have reasons to think the character virtues of an expert make them not only willing but also able to fulfill their service function within a community.

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