Archives For epistemic vices

Author Information: Nadja El Kassar, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology,

El Kassar, Nadja. “A Critical Catalogue of Ignorance: A Reply to Patrick Bondy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 49-51.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Lynn Friedman via Flickr / Creative Commons


This article responds to critiques of El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Including Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

Thanks to Patrick Bondy for these inspiring comments that allows me to further explain the arguments and rationale of the integrated conception of ignorance. 

Weak and Strong Ignorance

Bondy’s suggestion that there is weak ignorance and strong ignorance just as there is strong and weak knowledge is very interesting and perceptive (Bondy 2018, 11-12). But I take it that this distinction is more relevant for defenders of the propositional conception of ignorance, in particular supporters of the Standard View and New View.

In my reply to Peels (2019), I suggest that we should not see knowledge and ignorance as simple opposites, nor that their accounts should be mirrored. And in the original article I have argued that the Standard View and the New View are not adequate for capturing ignorance. Therefore, Bondy’s suggestion and the related criticism of the debate between the Standard View and New View is not as pertinent for my integrated conception of ignorance, but I think it should be taken seriously as an alternative approach to distinguishing forms of ignorance.

“Agential Ignorance” and “Agential Conception of Ignorance”

I need to point to a terminological issue in Bondy’s reply that may be central for distinguishing conceptions of ignorance and particular instances of ignorance, and thus also for motivating and defending the integrated conception of ignorance: Bondy swiftly changes between “agential conception of ignorance” and “agential ignorance” and seems to use these terms interchangeably. Similarly, for “structural conception of ignorance” and “structural ignorance”.

But these terms are importantly distinct: the former refers to a conception or an approach, the latter to a form of ignorance, or also particular instances of ignorance. In my article I only discuss agential conceptions and structural conceptions and I do not use the terms “agential ignorance” or “structural ignorance” because I am specifically interested in conceptions of ignorance

Practical Ignorance

Bondy, like Peels, points out that I do not address lack of practical knowledge or lack of know-how. Again, I fully agree that this is an open question in my article and for the integrated conception and I look forward to addressing this question in more detail. In his reply, Bondy suggests that my integrated conception can be extended to apply to such “practical ignorance” in the following way:

Theoretical ignorance: this would remain as El Kassar formulates her integrated conception of ignorance, as “a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)”

Practical ignorance: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in her actions – where S fails to φ, or S does not φ well or properly – and her practical attitudes (ethical and pragmatic attitudes, ethical or practical virtues and vices). (Bondy 2018, 13)

Yet, I have to reject this charitable extension. Bondy, as well as Peels, is right that there is work to do in this field, but simply imposing the integrated conception on “practical ignorance” would not be appropriate, nor is it an approach that I would wish to take.

First, I doubt that we can simply replace epistemic attitudes, virtues and vices with practical attitudes, practical virtues and vices to cover the practical case. Second, I think we need to respect the highly-evolved debate about know-how and include their concerns and arguments in any account that wants to address the lack of know-how or lack of practical knowledge. Any further conclusions require starting communication between the different fields and debates – a genuinely exciting prospect for philosophy of ignorance!

A first step might be to examine the terminology that we are using: Bondy discusses “practical ignorance” but maybe the term “incompetence” is more apt for these practical cases? Interestingly enough, psychologists who work on ignorance and meta-ignorance sometimes frame ignorance in terms of incompetence, see, for example Dunning in describing the Dunning-Kruger-Effect (Dunning 2011, 260).

Finally, and more fundamentally, I do not see why one should go for a unified account of theoretical and practical ignorance that uses the same components for both forms of ignorance. As I explain in my reply to Peels, I think that one should not aim for a unified account of ignorance and knowledge but instead take the phenomena seriously as they are. For now I take the same considerations to hold for theoretical ignorance and practical ignorance.

“We Can Say Everything That We Want to Say About Ignorance”

Bondy claims that “we can say everything we want to say about ignorance” (Bondy 2018, 9) with the propositional conception. But his claim is based on the assumption that what I call constituents of ignorance really are just causes of ignorance and I hope that my clarificatory remarks in this reply and my reply to Peels’ contribution explain why the assumption is not warranted and why the propositional conception does not say enough about ignorance. Let me briefly return to some arguments to motivate my position:

One problem is that Bondy’s (and Peels’) interpretation of closed-mindedness and other virtues or vices as causes of ignorance makes it seem as if these virtues and vices are naturally efficient causes; i.e. they turn the original claim that epistemic virtues and vices are co-constituents of ignorance into the claim that they are efficient causes.

But I would like to hear more about why we should draw this conclusion or why it is warranted. Again, a parallel in philosophy of know-how may be helpful in that context: know-how as a disposition does not explain why a performance occurred, it explains “why a certain kind of act … is possible in the first place” (Löwenstein 2017, 85, emphasis in original). And, similarly, a disposition, like open-mindedness or closed-mindedness, does not explain why someone does not know that p or why someone is ignorant of that particular fact. We need events in the world, decisions, beliefs, and motivations and the like to explain why someone is ignorant.

Second, as I say in the article, ignorance is more than a doxastic issue, it also has an attitudinal component, how one is ignorant – not how one has become ignorant, but the particular character of one’s ignorance. That also involves more than saying what kind of ignorance (e.g. propositional ignorance or practical ignorance) the particular instance belongs to. There is another facet of ignorance that is constitutive of ignorance and it cannot be captured by the propositional conception since it is restricted to the doxastic component.

That is why I want to say more about ignorance than just refer to the doxastic component. And even more, I suggest that everyone who wants to capture actual instances of ignorance should want to say more about ignorance than the propositional conception does.[1]

Contact details:


Bondy, Patrick. 2018. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (12): 9–14.

Dunning, David. 2011. “The Dunning–Kruger Effect.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44:247–96. Elsevier.

Löwenstein, David. 2017. Know-How as Competence: A Rylean Responsibilist Account. Studies in Theoretical Philosophy, vol. 4. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Peels, Rik. 2019. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (1): 10–18.

[1] Thanks to David Löwenstein and Lutz Wingert for helpful discussions.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla,

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Successfulness of Venting and Its Venues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 39-48.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Emery Way via Flickr / Creative Commons


This article continues the points from Padilla-Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting: A Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

And the author ultimately replies to Juli Thorson & Christine Baker (2019) Venting as Epistemic Work, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1561762.

In their recent paper “Venting as epistemic work”, Juli Thorson and Christine Baker (2019: 5) depict venting as a face-to-face action. They deem it to differ from consciousness-raising in that the audience of a venting episode may already have their consciousness raised about some state of affairs. Its importance is claimed to reside in its emotional helpfulness: it enables venters to make “[…] sense of the tangled thoughts and feelings” resulting from the epistemic injustice originating it (Thorson and Baker 2019: 6).

Venting succeeds, the authors argue, when the audience understand testimonial and hermeneutical injustices, even if implicitly, and have “[…] the right kind of standpoint” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 4). This facilitates recognition of the venter’s credibility and may prompt the audience to initiate epistemic work by undertaking the appropriate remedial action to eradicate the epistemic injustice in question.

Such a remedial action may simply amount to a re-assessment of the venter’s epistemic personhood. However, venting may be risky and be likely to cause further epistemic damage, Thorson and Baker (2019: 5-6) aver, if someone vents to the wrong person, i.e., a person who has already undermined or is prone to undermine her epistemic personhood.

In a previous paper, I have addressed the pragmatic and conversational features that enable an adequate and precise characterisation of venting (Padilla Cruz 2019). For it to spark off epistemic work, venting must certainly meet certain requisites, which unveil its felicity conditions (Searle 1969). In terms of propositional content, venting must focus on a recent or past state of affairs. While its preparatory condition establishes that the venter must assess the state of affairs as negative or unfair to herself, its sincerity condition determines that the venter must genuinely believe the state of affairs to be detrimental to herself.

Finally, its essential condition sets that venting must be an attempt by the venter to have her audience recognise that the state of affairs in question has affected her negatively and given rise to a variety of feelings like indignation, anger, disappointment, anxiety, etc.

However, a series of issues still deserve consideration in order to gain a fuller understanding of why venting can result in epistemic work:

  • What does having “the right kind of standpoint” involve?
  • When or why may venting actually be dangerous?
  • Can the interactional locus of venting be limited to face-to-face interaction?

The first issue will be tackled from the angle of Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2004), a cognitive pragmatic model that considers the linguistic properties of utterances and the mental operations that they trigger during comprehension. The second issue will be dealt with from an anthropological angle, some notions coming from psychology and the sociocultural or sociolinguistic branch of pragmatics. More specifically, part of the discussion will rely on concepts and viewpoints contributed by politeness theories, which centre on human verbal action, its conflict-generating or aggressive potential, and how this is softened or redressed. The last issue will be tackled from the perspective of digital discourse analysis, which looks into communicative behaviour through the new technologies and how these are exploited for various social practices and purposes. To conclude, in addition to summarising some of the views and ideas this reply presents, some suggestions for further research will be given.

On the Achievement of the Effects Associated With Venting

Thorson and Baker (2019) simply state that venting may result in epistemic work when the audience have “the right kind of standpoint” but they do not duly explain what they take such a standpoint to amount to. This is something that may be done from a cognitive angle by relying on a pragmatic framework concerned with what the human mind does when processing intentional stimuli like utterances: Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2004). In particular, the effect attributed to venting may be accounted for on the basis of the relevance-theoretic notions of cognitive environment, mutual cognitive environment and metarepresentation.

Individuals represent reality mentally by constructing assumptions or forging beliefs, and store those that they regard as true. When a state of affairs actually is, or is likely to be, mentally represented, it becomes manifest to an individual, since he in effect entertains, or may entertain, (a) belief(s) about it. The whole set of beliefs about states of affairs that he entertains makes up his cognitive environment (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 39). Although cognitive environments are highly idiosyncratic, those of two or more individuals may be similar in some respects, i.e. as regards their contents. If this happens, those individuals share a mutual cognitive environment (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 42).

The information that individuals process and mentally represent interacts with already stored information in three ways: by lending support to and strengthening old information, by contradicting and subsequently eliminating it, or by yielding new information that can only be derived from the joint interaction of both old and recently processed information. New information coming from such an interaction amounts to contextual implications (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 108).

On the other hand, utterances are public –i.e. perceptible, audible– representations of either other private representations –i.e. thoughts, beliefs– or other public ones –i.e. utterances produced by other individuals. Therefore, utterances are metarepresentations of the speaker’s own thoughts, but they can also be used to metarepresent the thoughts attributed to other individuals or the utterances that they (might) have produced.

In the former case, utterances are descriptive metarepresentations; in the latter, they are attributive metarepresentations, as long as there is an (easily) identifiable source of those thoughts or utterances. Furthermore, when utterances attributively metarepresent other individuals’ thoughts or words, speakers can also express their own attitudes towards the metarepresented content. The range of attitudes that they can express includes dissociative, endorsing or questioning ones. Expression of any of them renders utterances echoic metarepresentations (Wilson 1999; Noh 2000; Sperber 2000).

In heavy-load venting episodes where the audience know nothing about the complainable beforehand, the venter descriptively metarepresents her own thoughts and thus makes manifest to the audience assumptions amounting to new information. If the audience sense that the beliefs about the complainable that they forge are similar to those of the venter and experience similar feelings about it, there arises a cognitive mutuality or similarity between their respective cognitive environments, which is indispensable for those individuals to share a common or similar viewpoint. Such a cognitive mutuality will increase if the venter and her audience feel that they (can) further derive similar contextual implications from the beliefs manifest to themselves (Padilla Cruz 2010, 2012).

It is when such a cognitive mutuality or similarity between the venter and the audience’s respective cognitive environments is perceived that venting creates the necessary condition leading to epistemic work: the audience is acquainted with a situation, how someone experiencing it feels, its potential consequences and, eventually, how to fight it. When the audience is unaware of a problematic or unfair situation beforehand, this would be what must happen for them to have the right standpoint and be ready to undertake epistemic work.

In turn, when the audience already knows about an unfair situation and the venter is conscious of this, venting does not only metarepresent and make manifest the venter’s beliefs, but also attributively metarepresents beliefs already manifest to the audience. Similarity between the venter and the audience’s respective cognitive environments already exists, so these intersect in some respects: there is shared information or knowledge about what is vented.

Additionally, both the venter and her audience would realise that they do share (a) common negative attitude(s) towards the vented state of affairs. Hence, the venter may also simultaneously express, in addition to any of the negative attitudes characteristic of venting, a further one of endorsement with that of anger, frustration, wrath, etc., which she is certain that the audience also hold towards the state of affairs in question (Padilla Cruz 2007, 2008, 2010).

Consequently, when the audience are familiarised with what is vented, the venter may signal “the right kind of standpoint” by attributively metarepresenting beliefs already entertained by the audience, expressing her own negative feelings and simultaneously endorsing those of the audience. Such an endorsement is essential for venting to incite epistemic work because it indicates the alignment of the participants in the verbal episode as regards their viewpoints and feelings about the vented unjust state of affairs (Padilla Cruz 2010, 2012).

Why May Venting Be Dangerous?

Through heavy-load venting the venter achieves cognitive mutuality with her audience, whereas in maintenance venting such a mutuality already exists because the venter and her audience’s respective cognitive environments intersect in some respects. Venting, however, may be dangerous, and Thorson and Baker (2019) suggest that this may be the case when someone vents to the wrong person. If so, that person may inflict further epistemic damage.

The cognitive underpinnings of this undesired effect of venting are to be found mainly in an absence of cognitive mutuality, precisely. In other words, the venter and her audience’s cognitive environments not only do not intersect, but are different and perhaps (radically) opposed. To put it differently, the assumptions about the complainable which are manifest to the venter and her audience or the beliefs that these entertain do not match. As a result, the venter’s action becomes conflictive, in Leech’s (1983) terms: it questions, challenges or even attacks the audience’s viewpoint. Or, in Brown and Levinson’s (1987) view, her action amounts to an act threatening the audience’s face.

From an anthropological perspective, individuals are endowed with two quintessential attributes: rationality and face. The latter is the private and public self-image that every competent member of a sociocultural group claims for himself or herself (Goffman 1959, 1967). It is a rather vulnerable, two-sided personal attribute consisting of positive face, or the desire to be liked, appraised and admired, and feel that one’s actions are perceived as desirable or adequate by other people, and negative face, or the desire not to be questioned or challenged, and feel that one’s freedom of action is not curtailed by other people or their actions (Brown and Levinson 1987: 101, 129).

Threats to face stem from an individual’s own actions but also from other people’s actions, so that individuals may put at risk their own positive and negative face, but also those of other individuals at the same time.

Face is a complex and non-stable personal attribute liable to constant (re-)negotiation actions. Its more specific components may even be defined culturally (Arundale 1999). According to Spencer-Oatey (2000, 2008), face may even include what she labels quality face, which is linked to an individual’s skills, capacities, role, job, etc., and identity face, which is connected with the individual’s self-ascription to a sociocultural group, self-delineation, values, beliefs, ideology, viewpoints, etc.

When something is vented to a person with differing ideas or views, the venter is somehow challenging that person’s ideas or views, and thus challenging that person’s identity face. Or, following Brown and Levinson (1987), the venter threatens her audience’s positive face, as their viewpoints, ideas or beliefs about a state of affairs may be implicitly suggested not to be desirable, right or adequate. Venting, then, becomes a face-threatening act.

The reason why such challenge or threat arises is to be found in two psychological traits. On the one hand, confirmation bias or perseverance of belief (Klayman 1995). This is the human tendency to tenaciously adhere to beliefs obtained or conclusions drawn by one’s own means and for which enough supportive evidence is thought to exist. Confirmation bias makes individuals reluctant to abandon beliefs that they think are well rooted or well founded on evidence or reason.

As a consequence, individuals become or remain egocentric –the other psychological trait– and almost blindly trust their own set of beliefs without further questioning and do not admit other individuals’ perspectives. This may also explain why when something is vented to someone, venting may turn out dangerous: the hearer might not be open to differing views and ready to accept criticism, and would perceive the venter’s action as an attack. To it, he would react with some sort of counterattack intended to affirm and secure a safe epistemic position where his beliefs remain unquestioned.

On the Face-to-Face Nature of Venting

Paradoxically, even though the example of venting with which Thorson and Baker (2019) begin their discussion is an e-mail received by one of them, they contend that successful venting must be a face-to-face activity. In other words, venting must occur in situations characterised by the interlocutors’ physical co-presence, where there is immediacy, sequentiality and synchronicity in their verbal contributions (Biber 1988).

Such a claim is excessively restrictive and ignores other advantageous, more recent, less traditional, less text-based forms of communication where those four features of conversational interaction need not be indispensable: computer-mediated communication –e-mailing, instant messaging, blogs, discussion forums, message boards or websites[1]– mediated social networks –Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, to name but some– or the many applications for instant texting.

Venting needs not solely occur in face-to-face contact, but could also be successfully accomplished through any of these new technologies, which greatly facilitate visibility or exposure by reaching larger audiences (Signorelli 2017: 4). Indeed, venters could benefit from what these new technologies now offer in order not to simply achieve their goals, but also to increase the impact of their action and secure the desired reaction(s).

The advent and consolidation of new technologies like the computer decades ago, and the mobile phone or the smartphone more recently, gave rise to new forms of communication that rapidly spread and became new sites for a plethora of social practices (Androutsopoulos 2011: 281). As the technologies were developed and updated to satisfy further social, interactive needs, such forms of communication massively gained adept users and these introduced new conventions and ways of interacting: acronyms, lack of punctuation, new opening or closing formulae, innovative address forms, briefness in messages, etc. (Gains 1999; Wellman and Haythornthwaite 2002; White 2014).

As a result, communication was progressively deprived of its traditional defining features. Their absence may involve disadvantages and increase the probability of misunderstanding, above all when certain new conventions are unknown (Economidou-Kogetsidis 2011, 2016; Padilla Cruz, forthcoming), but the new technologies have attempted to overcome them by facilitating an incredibly rich variety of communicative resources that endow interaction through them with an additional characteristic: multimodality.

For instance, texting or messaging tools incorporate a wide range of emoticons enabling the expression of psychological states (Yus Ramos 2014) and offer the possibility of sending images, videos or voice notes. Similarly, e-mail servers, websites, blogs, discussion forums and message boards allow various formats for attachments and postings –textual and (audio)visual– which enable addition of photographs, drawings, videos, recordings, presentations, etc.

Moreover, discussion forums and message boards permit diverse participants to make their contributions or replies to a particular message, thus generating polylogues. All these resources are not only exploited by the users in order to make their informative intention[2] clearer or to secure correct understanding by helping other users visualise something, but also affect how users carry out their various social practices in the distinct venues that the new technologies offer. As a consequence, specific genres have been reshaped and redefined.

Each of the new technologies may be an excellent venue for venting and any communicative resource may be exploited for venting. Indeed, photographs, videos or drawings may become the first, initial contribution to a potential technology-mediated exchange that will actually unfold when (an)other participant(s) react(s) by means of a reply, further comments, postings, etc.

Subsequent reactions may give rise to polylogues, threads, (mass) forwarding, sharing, etc. Accordingly, it is possible to vent not just orally or textually through more traditional verbal means or written media, but also by displaying videos, posting comments, sharing pictures, etc. Venting, then, can also be multimodal and polylogal.

In this respect, Signorelli (2017) has shown how members of an online community subvert dominant discourses concerning obesity through their messages. Similarly, Garcés-Conejos Blitvich (2018) has also explained how a user of the new technologies took advantage of them in order to denounce the unfair, prejudiced and racist behaviour of a customer at a service encounter.

Smartphone in hand, the user recorded the customer’s offensive, denigrating and abusive words on site and posted the video, which was viewed and shared by several other users. This sparked off an impressive number of furious comments and reactions that resulted in the customer being prosecuted for misconduct, abuse and racism.


When the audience is not previously acquainted with the topic of venting, the venter metarepresents and makes manifest her own viewpoints, and voices her negative feelings with a view to achieving cognitive mutuality with her audience. If the audience is already aware of its topic, the venter metarepresents the thoughts and ideas that she attributes to them, and endorses their negative feelings.

Thus, the venter hints that cognitive mutuality between her and the audience actually exists. Cognitive mutuality increases when the audience feel that they can draw contextual implications that are similar to those that the venter can draw.

Cognitive mutuality is essential for achieving the pursued effects through venting, as it involves an alignment between the venter and her audience. If their cognitive environments are not mutual and do not intersect in any respect, venting may be perceived as a questioning of the audience’s ideas, ultimately threatening their identity. This is why venting may be dangerous and lead to further epistemic damage: the audience may attempt to secure their epistemic position by counterattacking.

Venting cannot be limited to traditional forms of social interaction such as face-to-face verbal communication or written communication. On the contrary, it may appear in more recent technology-mediated forms of communication, which potential venters can certainly take advantage of with a view to reaching larger audiences and magnifying its impact. The new and fascinating challenge that pragmatists, analysts of mediated discourse and communication, researchers in the new technologies and social epistemologists interested in venting now face is to examine and account for the dynamics of newer technology-based forms of venting and their contribution to fighting and eradicating injustices and inequalities.

Future research could look into the characteristics of and constraints on multimodal and polylogal venting, and ascertain their effectiveness. Scholars could additionally examine strategies and techniques deployed in order to increase the exposure of vented states of affairs and the (dis)advantages of specific media or venues. It could also be illuminating to investigate if venting can blend with or shade into other actions such as shaming.

These are just some avenues for future research which will surely shed much light onto this social and epistemic practice and its consequences, and widen our understanding thereof.

Contact details:


Androutsopoulos, Jannis. “From Variation to Heteroglossia in the Study of Computer-mediated Discourse.” In Digital Discourse: Language in the Media, edited by Crispin Thurlow and Kristine Mroczek, 276-298. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Arundale, Robert. “An Alternative Model and Ideology of Communication for an Alternative to Politeness Theory.” Pragmatics 9 (1999): 119-153.

Biber, Douglas. Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Economidou-Kogetsidis, María. “‘Please Answer Me as Soon as Possible’:  Pragmatic Failure in Non-native Speakers’ E-mail Requests to Faculty.” Journal of Pragmatics 43 (2011): 3193-3215.

Economidou-Kogetsidis, María. “Variation in Evaluations of the (Im)Politeness of Emails from L2 Learners and Perceptions of the Personality of their Senders.” Journal of Pragmatics 106 (2016): 1-16.

Gains, Jonathan. “Electronic Mail –A New Style of Communication or just a New Medium?: An Investigation into the Text Features of E-mail.” English for Specific Purposes 18, no. 1 (1999): 81-101.

Garcés-Conejos Blitvich, Pilar. “Smart Mobs, Cyber Public Shaming, and Social Justice”. Plenary talk delivered at the 11th International Conference on (Im)Politeness. University of Valencia, Spain.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

Goffman, Erving. Interactional Ritual: Essays on Face to Face Behavior. New York: Garden City, 1967.

Klayman, Joshua. “Varieties of Confirmation Bias.” In Decision Making from a Cognitive Perspective. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, edited by Jerome Busemeyer, Reid Hartie and Douglas L. Medin, 385-418. Vol. 32. New York: Academic Press, 1995.

Leech, Geoffrey. Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman, 1983

Noh, Eun-Ju. Metarepresentation. A Relevance-Theory Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Metarepresentations and Phatic Utterances: A Pragmatic Proposal about the Generation of Solidarity between Interlocutors.” In Current Trends in Pragmatics, edited by Piotr Cap and Joanna Nijakowska, 110-128. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Mindreading and the Communicative Functions of Phatic Utterances.” In Modern Developments in Linguistics and Language Teaching, edited by Tatiana Dubrovskaya and Yrina Kitayeya, 141-146. Moscow: MNEPU (Penza Branch), 2008.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Metarepresentation and Indirect Complaints: A Relevance-Theoretic Approach.” In In the Mind and across Minds: A Relevance-theoretic Perspective on Communication and Translation, edited by Ewa Wałaszewska, Marta Kisielewska-Krysiuk and Agnieszka Piskorska, 167-187. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Metarepresentation, Attitudinal Utterances and Attitude Combination: A Relevance-theoretic Approach.” In Relevance Studies in Poland. Volume 4: Essays on Language and Communication, edited by Agnieszka Piskorska, 75-88. Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2012.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis.” In The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, edited by Carol A. Chapelle, 1-6. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting. Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “El malentendido.” Forthcoming.

Searle, John. Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Signorelli, Julia A. “Of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Hamplanets, and Fatspeak: The Venting Genre as Support and Subversion on Reddit’s r/Fatpeoplestories.” MA diss., The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Spencer-Oatey, Helen D. (ed.) Culturally Speaking. Managing Rapport through Talk across Cultures. London: Continuum, 2000.

Spencer-Oatey, Helen D. (ed.) Culturally Speaking: Culture, Communication and Politeness Theory. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008.

Sperber, Dan (ed.). Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Thorson, Juli, and Christine Baker. “Venting as Epistemic Work.” Social Epistemology. A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy (2019).

Wellman, Barry, and Caroline Haythornthwaite (eds.). The Internet in Everyday Life. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

White, Jonathan. “Standardisation of Reduced Forms in English in an Academic Community of Practice.” Pragmatics and Society 5, no. 1 (2014): 105-127.

Wilson, Deirdre. “Metarepresentation in Linguistic Communication.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 11 (1999): 127-161.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance Theory.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 14 (2002): 249-287.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance Theory.” In The Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Larry Horn and Gregory Ward, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Yus Ramos, Francisco. “Not All Emoticons Are Created Equal.” Linguagem em (Dis)curso 14, no. 3 (2014): 511-529.

[1] In technical terms, the difference between a discussion forum and a message board is that the former contains chains of comments on an issue or topic that may be read in block, while the latter organises contributions in thematic groups that can be selected by users.

[2] An individual’s informative intention is the intention to make manifest a specific set of assumptions, i.e. the intention to transmit a specific message (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

Author Information: Paul R. Smart, University of Southampton,

Smart, Paul R. “(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 45-55.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by BTC Keychain via Flickr / Creative Commons


Richard Heersmink’s (2018) article, A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education, provides an important and timely analysis of the Internet from the standpoint of virtue epistemology.[1] According to Richard, the Internet is an important epistemic resource, but it is one that comes with a range of epistemic hazards. Such hazards, he suggests, motivate a consideration of the ways in which individuals should interact with the Internet.

In particular, Richard appeals to a specific branch of virtue epistemology, known as virtue responsibilism, arguing that certain kinds of cognitive trait (e.g., curiosity and open-mindedness) are useful in helping us press maximal epistemic benefit from the Internet. Given the utility of such traits, coupled with the epistemic importance of the Internet, Richard suggests that educational policy should be adapted so as to equip would-be knowers with the cognitive wherewithal to cope with the epistemic challenges thrown up by the online environment.

There is, no doubt, something right about all this. Few would disagree with the claim that a certain level of discernment and discrimination is important when it comes to the evaluation of online content. Whether such ‘virtues’ are best understood from the perspective of virtue responsibilism or virtue reliabilism is, I think, a moot point, for I suspect that in the case of both virtue responsibilism and virtue reliabilism what matters is the way in which belief-forming informational circuits are subject to active configuration by processes that may be broadly construed as metacognitive in nature (Smart, in pressa). That, however, is a minor quibble, and it is one that is of little consequence to the issues raised in Richard’s paper.

For the most part, then, I find myself in agreement with many of the assumptions that motivate the target article. I agree that the Internet is an important epistemic resource that is unprecedented in terms of its scale, scope, and accessibility. I also agree that, at the present time, the Internet is far from an epistemically safe environment, and this raises issues regarding the epistemic standing of individual Internet users. In particular, it looks unlikely that the indiscriminate selection and endorsement of online information will do much to bolster one’s epistemic credentials.

We thus encounter something of a dilemma: As an epistemic resource, the Internet stands poised to elevate our epistemic standing, but as an open and public space the Internet provides ample opportunities for our doxastic systems to be led astray. The result is that we are obliged to divide the online informational cornucopia into a treasure trove of genuine facts and a ragbag collection of ‘false facts’ and ‘fake news.’ The information superhighway, it seems, promises to expand our epistemic power and potential, but the road ahead is one that is fraught with a dizzying array of epistemic perils, problems, and pitfalls. What ought we to do in response to such a situation?

It is at this point that I suspect my own views start to diverge with those of the target article. Richard’s response to the dilemma is to focus attention on the individual agent and consider the ways in which an agent’s cognitive character can be adapted to meet the challenges of the Internet. My own approach is somewhat different. It is borne out of three kinds of doubt: doubts about the feasibility (although not the value) of virtue-oriented educational policies, doubts about the basic validity of virtue theoretic conceptions of knowledge, and doubts about whether the aforementioned dilemma is best resolved by attempting to change the agent as opposed to the environment in which the agent is embedded. As always, space is limited and life is short, so I will restrict my discussion to issues that I deem to be of greatest interest to the epistemological community.

Reliable Technology

Inasmuch as intellectual virtues are required for online knowledge—i.e., knowledge that we possess as a result of our interactions and engagements with the Internet—they are surely only part of a much  broader (and richer) story that includes details about the environment in which our cognitive systems operate. In judging the role of intellectual virtue in shielding us from the epistemic hazards of the online environment, it therefore seems important to have some understanding of the actual technologies we interact with.

This is important because it helps us understand the kinds of intellectual virtue that might be required, as well as the efficacy of specific intellectual virtues in helping us believe the truth (and thus working as virtues in the first place). Internet technologies are, of course, many and varied, and it will not be possible to assess their general relevance to epistemological debates in the present commentary. For the sake of brevity, I will therefore restrict my attention to one particular technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is perhaps best known for its role in supporting the digital cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. It provides us with a means of storing data in a secure fashion, using a combination of data encryption and data linking techniques. For present purposes, we can think of a blockchain as a connected set of data records (or data blocks), each of which contains some body of encrypted data. In the case of Bitcoin, of course, the data blocks contain data of a particular kind, namely, data pertaining to financial transactions. But this is not the only kind of data that can be stored in a blockchain. In fact, blockchains can be used to store information about pretty much anything. This includes online voting records, news reports, sensor readings, personal health records, and so on.

Once data is recorded inside a blockchain, it is very difficult to modify. In essence, the data stored within a blockchain is immutable, in the sense that it cannot be changed without ‘breaking the chain’ of data blocks, and thereby invalidating the data contained within the blockchain. This property makes blockchains of considerable epistemic significance, because it speaks to some of the issues (e.g., concerns about data tampering and malign forms of information manipulation) that are likely to animate epistemological debates in this area.

This does not mean, of course, that the information stored within a blockchain is guaranteed to be factually correct, in the sense of being true and thus yielding improvements in epistemic standing. Nevertheless, there are, I think, reasons to regard blockchain as an important technology relative to efforts to make the online environment a somewhat safer place for would-be knowers. Consider, for example, the title of the present article. Suppose that we wanted to record the fact that a person known as Paul Smart—that’s me—wrote an article with the title:

(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

We can incorporate this particular piece of information into a blockchain using something called a cryptographic hash function, which yields a unique identifier for the block and all of its contents. In the case of the aforementioned title, the cryptographic hash (as returned by the SHA256 algorithm[2]) is:


Now suppose that someone wants to alter the title, perhaps to garner support for an alternative argumentative position. In particular, let’s suppose they want to claim that the title of the article is:

Fake News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

From an orthographic perspective, of course, not much has changed. But the subtlety of the alteration is not something that can be used to cause confusion about the actual wording of the original title—the title that I intended for the present article. (Neither can it be used to cast doubt about the provenance of the paper—the fact that the author of the paper was a person called Paul Smart.) To see this, note that the hash generated for the ‘fake’ title looks nothing like the original:


It is this property that, at least in part, makes blockchains useful for recording information that might otherwise be prone to epistemically malign forms of information manipulation. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that climatological data, as recorded by globally distributed sensors, was stored in a blockchain. The immutability of such data makes it extremely difficult for anyone to manipulate the data in such a way as to confirm or deny the reality of year-on-year changes in global temperature. Neither is it easy to alter information pertaining to the provenance of existing data records, i.e., information about when, where, and how such data was generated.

None of this should delude us into thinking that blockchain technology is a panacea for Internet-related epistemic problems—it isn’t! Neither does blockchain obviate the need for agents to exercise at least some degree of intellectual virtue when it comes to the selection and evaluation of competing data streams. Nevertheless, there is, I think, something that is of crucial epistemological interest and relevance here—something that makes blockchain and other cybersecurity technologies deserving of further epistemological attention. In particular, such technologies may be seen as enhancing the epistemic safety of the online environment, and thus perhaps reducing the need for intellectual virtue.

In this sense, the epistemological analysis of Internet technologies may be best approached from some variant of modal epistemology—e.g., epistemological approaches that emphasize the modal stability of true beliefs across close possible worlds (Pritchard, 2009, chap. 2). But even if we choose to countenance an approach that appeals to issues of intellectual virtue, there is still, I suggest, a need to broaden the analytic net to include technologies that (for the time being at least) lie beyond the bounds of the individual cognitive agent.

Safety in Numbers

“From an epistemic perspective,” Richard writes, “the most salient dimension of the Internet is that it is an information space” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 5). Somewhat surprisingly, I disagree. Although it is obviously true that the Internet is an information space, it is not clear that this is its most salient feature, at least from an epistemological standpoint. In particular, there is, I suggest, a sense in which the Internet is more than just an information space. As is clear from the explosive growth in all things social—social media, social networks, social bots, and so on—the Internet functions as a social technology, yielding all manner of opportunities for people to create, share and process information in a collaborative fashion. The result, I suggest, is that we should not simply think of the Internet as an information space (although it is surely that), we should also view it as a social space.

Viewing the Internet as a social space is important because it changes the way we think about the epistemic impact of the Internet, relative to the discovery, production, representation, acquisition, processing and utilization of knowledge. Smart (in pressb), for example, suggests that some online systems function as knowledge machines, which are systems in which some form of knowledge-relevant processing is realized by a socio-technical mechanism, i.e., a mechanism whose component elements are drawn from either the social (human) or the technological realm.

An interesting feature of many of these systems is the way in which the reliability (or truth-conducive) nature of the realized process is rooted in the socio-technical nature of the underlying (realizing) mechanism. When it comes to human computation or citizen science systems, for example, user contributions are typically solicited from multiple independent users as a means of improving the reliability of specific epistemic outputs (Smart, in pressb; Smart and Shadbolt, in press; Watson and Floridi, 2018). Such insights highlight the socially-distributed character of at least some forms of online knowledge production, thereby moving us beyond the realms of individual, agent-centric analyses.

On a not altogether unrelated note, it is important to appreciate the way in which social participation can itself be used to safeguard online systems from various forms of malign intervention. One example is provided by the Google PageRank algorithm. In this case, any attempt to ‘artificially’ elevate the ranking assigned to specific contributions (e.g., a user’s website) is offset by the globally-distributed nature of the linking effort, coupled with the fact that links to a specific resource are themselves weighted by the ranking of the resource from which the link originates. This makes it difficult for any single agent to subvert the operation of the PageRank algorithm.

Even ostensibly non-social technologies can be seen to rely on the distributed and decentralized nature of the Internet. In the case of blockchain, for example, multiple elements of a peer-to-peer network participate in the computational processes that make blockchain work. In this way, the integrity of the larger system is founded on the collaborative efforts of an array of otherwise independent computational elements. And it is this that (perhaps) allows us to think of blockchain’s epistemically-desirable features as being rooted in something of a ‘social’ substrate.

All of this, I suggest, speaks in favor of an approach that moves beyond a preoccupation with the properties of individual Internet users. In particular, there seems to be considerable merit in approaching the Internet from a more socially-oriented epistemological perspective. It is easy to see the social aspects of the Internet as lying at the root of a panoply of epistemic concerns, especially when it comes to the opportunities for misinformation, deception, and manipulation. But in light of the above discussion, perhaps an alternative, more positive, take on the Internet (qua social space) starts to come into sharper focus. This is a view that highlights the way in which certain kinds of online system can work to transform a ‘vice’ into a ‘virtue,’ exploiting the social properties of the Internet for the purposes of dealing with reliability-related concerns.

Image by Dariorug via Flickr / Creative Commons


Filter Bubblicious

Search engines form one of the focal points of Richard’s analysis, and, as with previous work in this area, Richard finds at least some aspects of their operation to be highly problematic. A particular issue surfaces in respect of personalized search. Here, Richard’s analysis echoes the sentiments expressed by other epistemologists who regard personalized search algorithms as of dubious epistemic value.

In fact, I suspect the consensus that has emerged in this area fails to tell the whole story about the epistemic consequences of personalized search. Indeed, from a virtue epistemological position, I worry that epistemologists are in danger of failing to heed their own advice—prematurely converging on a particular view without proper consideration of competing positions. In my new-found role as the virtue epistemologist’s guardian angel (or should that be devil’s advocate?), I will attempt to highlight a couple of reasons why I think more empirical research is required before we can say anything useful about the epistemological impact of personalized search algorithms.

My first worry is that our understanding about the extent to which search results and subsequent user behavior is affected by personalization is surprisingly poor. Consider, for example, the results of one study, which attempted to quantify the effect of personalization on search results (Hannak et al., 2013). Using an empirical approach, Hannak et al. (2013) report a demonstrable personalization effect, with 11.7% of search results exhibiting differences due to personalization. Interestingly, however, the effect of personalization appeared to be greater for search results with lower rankings; highly ranked results (i.e., those appearing at the top of a list of search results) appeared to be much less affected by personalization.

This result is interesting given the observation that college students “prefer to click on links in higher positions even when the abstracts are less relevant to the task at hand” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 6). From one perspective, of course, this tendency looks like a vice that jeopardizes the epistemic standing of the individual user. And yet, from another perspective, it looks like the preference for higher ranked search results is poised to negate (or at least reduce) the negative epistemological effects of personalized search. What we seem to have here, in essence, is a situation in which one kind of ‘intellectual vice’ (i.e., a tendency to select highly-ranked search results) is playing something of a more positive (virtuous?) role in mitigating the negative epistemological sequelae of a seemingly vicious technology (i.e., personalized search).

None of this means that the epistemic effects of personalized search are to the overall benefit of individual users; nevertheless, the aforementioned results do call for a more nuanced and empirically informed approach when considering the veritistic value of search engines, as well as other kinds of Internet-related technology.

A second worry relates to the scope of the epistemological analysis upon which judgements about the veritistic value of search engines are based. In this case, it is unclear whether analyses that focus their attention on individual agents are best placed to reveal the full gamut of epistemic costs and benefits associated with a particular technology, especially one that operates in the socio-technical ecology of the Internet. To help us understand this worry in a little more detail, it will be useful to introduce the notion of mandevillian intelligence (Smart, in pressc; Smart, in pressd).

Mandevillian intelligence is a specific form of collective intelligence in which the cognitive shortcomings and epistemic vices of the individual agent are seen to yield cognitive benefits and epistemic virtues at the collective or social level of analysis, e.g., at the level of collective doxastic agents (see Palermos, 2015) or socio-epistemic systems (see Goldman, 2011). According to this idea, personalized search systems may play a productive role in serving the collective cognitive good, providing a means by which individual vices (e.g., a tendency for confirmation bias) are translated into something that more closely resembles an epistemic virtue (e.g., greater cognitive coverage of a complex space of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and so on). Consider, for example, the way in which personalized search may help to focus individual attention on particular bodies of information, thereby restricting access to a larger space of ideas, opinions, and other information.

While such forms of ‘restricted access’ or ‘selective information exposure’ are unlikely to yield much in the way of an epistemic benefit for the individual agent, it is possible that by exploiting (and, indeed, accentuating!) an existing cognitive bias (e.g., confirmation bias), personalized search may work to promote cognitive diversity, helping to prevent precipitant forms of cognitive convergence (see Zollman, 2010) and assisting with the epistemically optimal division of cognitive labor (see Muldoon, 2013). This possibility reveals something of a tension in how we interpret or evaluate the veritistic value of a particular technology or epistemic practice. In particular, it seems that assessments of veritistic value may vary according to whether our epistemological gaze is directed towards individual epistemic agents or the collective ensembles in which those agents are situated.

The Necessity of Virtue

As Richard notes, virtue epistemology is characterized by a shift in emphasis, away from the traditional targets of epistemological analysis (e.g., truth, justification and belief) and towards the cognitive properties of would-be knowers. “Virtue epistemology,” Richard writes, “is less concerned with the nature of truth and more concerned with the cognitive character of agents” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 2). This is, no doubt, a refreshing change, relative to the intellectual orientation of traditional philosophical debates.

Nevertheless, I assume that virtue epistemologists still recognize the value and priority of truth when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation. Someone who holds false beliefs is not the possessor of knowledge, and this remains the case irrespective of whatever vices and virtues the agent has. In other words, it does not matter how careful, attentive and assiduous an agent is in selecting and evaluating information, if what the agent believes is false, they simply do not know.

What seems to be important in the case of virtue epistemology is the role that intellectual virtue plays in securing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. In particular, the central feature of virtue epistemology (at least to my mind) is that the truth of an agent’s beliefs stem from the exercise of intellectual virtue. It is thus not the case that truth is unimportant (or less important) when it comes to issues of positive epistemic standing; rather, it is the role that intellectual virtue plays in establishing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. An agent is thus a bona fide knower when they believe the truth and the truth in question is attributable to some aspect of their cognitive character, specifically, a cognitive trait (virtue responsibilism) or cognitive faculty (virtue reliabilism).

What then makes something a vice or virtue seems to be tied to the reliability of token instantiations of processes that are consistent with an agent’s cognitive character. Intellectual virtues are thus “cognitive character traits that are truth-conducive and minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3), while intellectual vices are characterized as “cognitive character traits that are not truth-conducive and do not minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3). It is this feature of the intellectual virtues—the fact that they are, in general, reliable (or give rise to reliable belief-relevant processes)—that looks to be important when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation.

So this is what I find problematic about virtue theoretic approaches to knowledge. (Note that I am not an epistemologist by training, so this will require a generous—and hopefully virtue-inspiring swig—of the ole intellectual courage.) Imagine a state-of-affairs in which the Internet was (contrary to the present state-of-affairs) a perfectly safe environment—one where the factive status of online information was guaranteed as a result of advances in cyber-security techniques and intelligent fact-checking services. Next, let us imagine that we have two individuals, Paul and Sophia, who differ with respect to their cognitive character. Paul is the least virtuous of the two, unreflectively and automatically accepting whatever the Internet tells him. Sophia is more circumspect, wary of being led astray by (the now non-existent) fake news.

Inasmuch as we see the exercise of intellectual virtue as necessary for online knowledge, it looks unlikely that poor old Paul can be said to know very much. This is because the truth of Paul’s beliefs are not the result of anything that warrants the label ‘intellectual virtue.’ Paul, of course, does have a lot of true beliefs, but the truth of these beliefs does not stem from the exercise of his intellectual virtues—if, indeed, he has any. In fact, inasmuch as there is any evidence of virtue in play here, it is probably best attributed to the technologies that work to ensure the safety of the online environment. The factive status of Paul’s beliefs thus has more to do with the reliability of the Internet than it does with the elements of his cognitive character.

But is it correct to say that Paul has no online knowledge in this situation? Personally, I do not have this intuition. In other words, in a perfectly safe environment, I can see no reason why we should restrict knowledge attributions to agents whose beliefs are true specifically as the result of intellectual virtue. My sense is that even the most unreflective of agents could be credited with knowledge in a situation where there was no possibility of them being wrong. And if that is indeed the case, then why insist that it is only the exercise of intellectual virtue that underwrites positive epistemic standing?

After all, it seems perfectly possible, to my mind, that Sophia’s epistemic caution contributes no more to the minimization of error in an epistemically benign (i.e., safe) environment than does Paul’s uncritical acceptance. (In fact, given the relative efficiency of their doxastic systems, it may very well be the case that Sophia ends up with fewer true beliefs than Paul.) It might be claimed that this case is invalidated by a failure to consider the modal stability of an agent’s beliefs relative to close possible worlds, as well as perhaps their sensitivity to counterfactual error possibilities. But given the way in which the case is characterized, I suggest that there are no close possible worlds that should worry us—the cybersecurity and fact checking technologies are, let us assume, sufficiently robust as to ensure the modal distance of those worrisome worlds.

One implication of all this is to raise doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue, relative to our conceptual understanding of knowledge. If there are cases where intellectual virtue is not required for positive epistemic standing, then intellectual virtue cannot be a necessary condition for knowledge attribution. And if that is the case, then why should intellectual virtue form the basis of an approach that is intended to deal with the epistemic shortcomings of the (contemporary) Internet?

Part of the attraction of virtue epistemology, I suspect, is the way in which a suite of generally reliable processes are inextricably linked to the agent who is the ultimate target of epistemic evaluation. This linkage, which is established via the appeal to cognitive character, helps to ensure the portability of an agent’s truth-tracking capabilities—it helps to ensure, in other words, that wherever the agent goes their reliable truth-tracking capabilities are sure to follow.

However, in an era where our doxastic systems are more-or-less constantly plugged into a reliable and epistemically safe environment, it is not so clear that agential capabilities are relevant to epistemic standing. This, I suggest, raises doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue in securing positive epistemic status, and it also (although this is perhaps less clear) encourages us to focus our attention on some of the engineering efforts (as opposed to agent-oriented educational programs) that might be required to make the online world an epistemically safer place.


What, then, should we make of the appeal to virtue epistemology in our attempt to deal with the  epistemic hazards of the Internet. My main concern is that the appeal to virtue epistemology (and the emphasis placed on intellectual virtue) risks an unproductive focus on individual human agents at the expense of both the technological and social features of the online world. This certainly does not rule out the relevance of virtue theoretic approaches as part of our attempt to understand the epistemic significance of the Internet, but other approaches (e.g., modal reliabilism, process reliabilism, distributed reliabilism, and systems-oriented social epistemology) also look to be important.

Personally, I remain agnostic with regard to the relevance of different epistemological approaches, although I worry about the extent to which virtue epistemology is best placed to inform policy-related decisions (e.g., those relating to education). In particular, I fear that by focusing our attention on individual agents and issues of intellectual virtue, we risk overlooking some of the socio-epistemic benefits of the Internet, denigrating a particular technology (e.g., personalized search) on account of its failure to enhance individual knowledge, while ignoring the way a technology contributes to more collective forms of epistemic success.

In concluding his thought-provoking paper on virtue epistemology and the Internet, Richard suggests that “there is an important role for educators to teach and assess [intellectual] virtues as part of formal school and university curricula, perhaps as part of critical thinking courses” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 10). I have said relatively little about this particular issue in the present paper. For what it’s worth, however, I can see no reason to object to the general idea of Internet-oriented educational policies. The only caveat, perhaps, concerns the relative emphasis that might be placed on the instillation of intellectual virtue as opposed to the inculcation of technical skills, especially those that enable future generations to make the online world a safer place.

No doubt there is room for both kinds of pedagogical program (assuming they can even be dissociated). At the very least, it seems to me that the effort to resolve a problem (i.e., engineer a safer Internet) is just as important as the effort to merely cope with it (i.e., acquire a virtuous cognitive character). But, in any case, when it comes to education and learning, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Internet is itself something that is used for educational purposes. Perhaps, then, the more important point about education and the Internet is not so much the precise details of what gets taught, so much as the issue of whether the Internet (with all its epistemic foibles) is really the best place to learn.

Contact details:


Goldman, A. I. (2011). A guide to social epistemology. In A. I. Goldman and D. Whitcomb (Eds.), Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, pp. 11–37. New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Hannak, A., P. Sapiezynski, A. Molavi Kakhki, B. Krishnamurthy, D. Lazer, A. Mislove, and C. Wilson (2013). Measuring personalization of Web search. In D. Schwabe, V. Almeida, H. Glaser, R. Baeza-Yates, and S. Moon (Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference  on World Wide Web, Rio  de Janeiro, Brazil, pp. 527–538. ACM.

Heersmink, R. (2018). A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education. Social Epistemology 32 (1), 1–12.

Muldoon, R. (2013). Diversity and the division of cognitive labor. Philosophy Compass 8 (2), 117–125.

Palermos, S. O. (2015). Active externalism, virtue reliabilism and scientific knowledge. Synthese 192 (9), 2955–2986.

Pritchard, D. (2009). Knowledge. Basingstoke, England, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smart, P. R. (in pressa). Emerging digital technologies: Implications for extended conceptions of cognition and knowledge. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. (in pressb). Knowledge machines. The Knowledge Engineering Review.

Smart, P. R. (in pressc). Mandevillian intelligence. Synthese.

Smart, P. R. (in pressd). Mandevillian intelligence: From individual vice to collective virtue. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Socially Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. and N. R. Shadbolt (in press). The World Wide Web. In J. Chase and D. Coady (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology. New York, New York, USA: Routledge.

Watson, D. and L. Floridi (2018). Crowdsourced science: Sociotechnical epistemology in the e-research paradigm. Synthese 195 (2), 741–764.

Zollman, K. J. S. (2010). The epistemic benefit of transient diversity. Erkenntnis 72 (1), 17–35.

[1] This work is supported under SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines. The SOCIAM Project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant number EP/J017728/1 and comprises the Universities of Southampton, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[2] See [accessed: 30th  January 2018].

Author Information: Brent J. C. Madison, United Arab Emirates University,

Madison, B. J. C. “On the Nature of Intellectual Vice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 1-6.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink:

  • Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Ontology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 20-27.
  • Kidd, I., “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6 (2017): 11-17.

Ingrid Truemper via Flickr / Creative Commons


Vice epistemology, as Quassim Cassam understands it, is the study of the nature, identity, and significance of the epistemic vices (see Cassam 2015; Cassam 2016; Cassam 2017; Cassam Forthcoming). An intellectual vice is a human defect. Paradigmatic examples of intellectual vices include: dogmatism, carelessness, and gullibility (Cassam 2016: 159). A fuller account of putative intellectual vices might also include: “intellectual pride, negligence, idleness, cowardice, conformity, carelessness, rigidity, prejudice, wishful thinking, closed-mindedness, insensitivity to detail, obtuseness, and lack of thoroughness” (Zagzebski 1996: 152).

A fundamental question, which many projects in vice epistemology presuppose an answer to, is this: what makes an intellectual vice a vice? For instance, in this journal, Cassam asks why some vices are included on the above lists, and other vices are not. (2017: 20) Also what, if anything, unifies these lists? In a similar sprit of taxonomy, Kidd (2017) explores the notion of “capital vices”, partly in the service of proposing how vices might be grouped and ordered, understanding which vices are dependent on others, and so on. Before considering such a grouping and ordering, however, it would be good to have an account of what makes an intellectual vice a vice in the first place.

In this paper I shall begin by briefly sketching one popular answer to the question of what makes a vice a vice, namely that offered by the virtue reliabilist. Drawing on other work, I shall introduce a fundamental objection to such approaches, which I call Montmarquet’s objection. This will give us the opportunity to examine Cassam’s own proposal of what makes an intellectual vice a vice, a view he names Obstructivism, which is motivated in part by the aim of avoiding a version of this objection. I shall argue that Cassam’s account is an improvement upon virtue-reliabilism, and that it fares better against Montmarquet’s objection than its immediate rivals. Nevertheless, I contend that it does not go far enough — Montmarquet’s objection stands.

I conclude that either the objection needs to be answered in some other way, or else proponents of Obstructivism need to explain why their account of the nature of the intellectual vices does not have the counterintuitive consequences it appears to have. Alternatively, another account of the nature of the intellectual vices needs to be sought.

Virtue-Reliabilism and Montmarquet’s Objection

So, what makes an intellectual virtue a virtue, and a vice a vice? According to a popular and influential view known as virtue-reliabilism, what makes an intellectual virtue a virtue is that the trait is truth-conducive (e.g. Sosa 1991; Sosa 2007; Greco 2010). According to the most basic form of virtue-reliabilism, virtues are stable and robust dispositions to form more true beliefs than false ones; understanding vices along these lines insists that a trait is an intellectual vice because beliefs formed through their exercise are more likely to be false than true. While the view need not require truth or falsity-conduciveness in all possible worlds, it does require truth-conduciveness in a broad range of conditions that need to be specified (e.g. Sosa, 1991: 275; Sosa 2007: 83-4).

The simplest and most straightforward version of virtue-reliabilism holds that traits are virtues or vices depending on their truth-conduciveness in the actual world[1]. Besides its theoretical parsimony, another advantage of this view is that it aims to give a clear and straightforward account of the value of the virtues and the vices: truth is valuable, and the virtues are instrumentally valuable ways of acquiring truths. Conversely, the vices are instrumentally of disvalue since their exercise results in acquiring falsehoods.

Notice, however, that whether a trait produces true beliefs depends largely in part on the environment a subject finds herself in (e.g. Carter and Gordon 2014)[2]. For example, while being intellectually virtuous might lead to more true beliefs than false beliefs in favorable environments, if owing to factors like extremely bad luck of different sorts, it could transpire that being virtuous would result in systematically false beliefs. Similarly, the environment and other extrinsic elements could conspire to ensure that being dogmatic, careless, and gullible would lead to more true beliefs over false beliefs. So the connection between the virtues and truth seems highly contingent at best.

To make this vivid, consider the following thought experiment, proposed by James Montmarquet. Montmarquet writes,

Let us assume that a Cartesian ‘evil demon’ has, unbeknownst to us, made our world such that truth is best attained by thoroughly exemplifying what, on our best crafted accounts, qualify as intellectual vices. Presumably, we would not therefore conclude that these apparent vices are and have always been virtues. (1987: 482)

Montmarquet offers the case of Galileo and his lazy, intellectually uncurious brother Schmalileo. On the face of it, Galileo is a person of intellectual virtue, and his brother is one of intellectual vice. But suppose further that an evil demon sees to it that Galileo’s open-mindedness, insight, intellectual courage, and so on, result in false beliefs, whereas Schmalileo’s dogmatism, gullibility, and intellectual laziness always results in true beliefs. Does this make any difference to who possess intellectual virtues, and to what extent? Should we say that Galileo is intellectually vicious, and Schmalileo is the one who possesses and exercises intellectual virtue? That would be absurd.

Intuitively, Galileo is the intellectually virtuous one, and his brother the intellectually vicious one, and this remains unaffected by whether the demon is manipulating the truth-conduciveness of their belief forming processes. The argument concludes, therefore, that truth-conduciveness is not necessary for a trait to be a virtue[3]. Montmarquet’s objection makes salient the following questions: could an evil demon really see to it that open-mindedness and intellectual courage, for example, are vices by making the beliefs formed through their exercise false? Is it also possible that character traits like dogmatism and gullibility could be virtues, as long as the demon ensured that forming beliefs in that way happened always to be true?

Cassam’s Obstructivism

Cassam understands intellectual vices as bad character traits (e.g. closed-mindedness), thinking styles (e.g. wishful thinking), or attitudes / judgments (e.g. prejudice) (2015: 20-21). They amount to vices because of their negative impact on inquiry. Following Christopher Hookway, Cassam understands inquiry as “the attempt ‘to find things out, to extend our knowledge by carrying out investigations directed at answering questions, and to refine our knowledge by considering questions about things we currently hold true.” (Ibid.) Inquiry is a goal directed activity, and Cassam takes that goal to be knowledge. An effective inquiry, Cassam says, is knowledge-conducive. The vices, therefore, are taken to impede effective inquiry, whereas the intellectual virtues facilitate it. This is why Cassam calls his view “Obstructivism” – intellectual vices are those traits, thinking styles, or attitudes that systematically obstruct the acquisition, retention, and transmission of knowledge.

Cassam is an epistemologist who is sensitive to the problems raised by Montmarquet’s objection. In the course of motivating and developing Obstructivism, he aims to avoid the problem of the possibility of a demon being able to turn a vice into a virtue. This can be solved, according to Cassam, by departing from the form of virtue-reliabilism discussed above. Cassam’s view is also a form of epistemic consequentialism, insofar as it is the consequences alone of the traits that determine if they are virtues or vices.  Obstructivism differs from standard virtue reliabilism, however, since the relevant consequences are considered in terms of being obstructive to knowledge, not just truth.

While knowledge entails truth, there is more to knowing than merely believing truly. In addition, believing responsibly or reasonably seems to be required. So on Cassam’s account, a trait is a vice because of impeding two things: effective inquiry, which is held to be knowledge conducive, and responsible inquiry. Responsible inquiry, in turn, is taken to be something like justified or rational inquiry. Crucially, both conditions are taken to characterize what makes a trait a vice. Along these lines, virtues are traits that are conducive to effective and responsible inquiry (Cassam 2016: 164-166).

With the elements of this account to hand, Cassam replies to Montmarquet’s objections as follows: consider a demon world inhabited by Galileo’s intellectually vicious brother Schmalielo, who unlike Galileo, is closed-minded, lazy, and negligent. The demon sees to it that his intellectual vices are nevertheless truth-conducive. Cassam argues that Schmalileo still exhibits vices in the demon world, however, even if reliable, since he is being epistemically irresponsible. Schmalielo is an ineffective inquirer not because his beliefs are false (since the demon sees to it that they are true), but because they are unjustified (Cassam 2016: 166-167). So the demon cannot make vices into virtues by manipulating the environment and the truth-conduciveness of Schmalielo’s belief forming methods.

Offering an account of the vices that does not allow for the possibility of an evil demon turning the vices into virtues is an improvement over standard virtue-reliabilism. But does it go far enough? In particular, what does it imply about Galileo’s beliefs? In the demon world, he is not an effective inquirer on Cassam’s account, since he has beliefs that do not amount to knowledge because they are false, not because they are unjustified.

So on Cassam’s view, he is committed to saying that Galileo is no longer intellectually virtuous in the demon world, despite exhibiting open-mindedness, insight, creativity, intellectual courage, and so. His beliefs in the demon world are not formed in a way that is knowledge conducive, since false, though they are responsibly formed. So the worry is this: on Cassam’s virtues-as-knowledge-conducive traits, the demon cannot make vices into virtues, but the demon can make virtues into vices (by ensuring falsity and falsity-conduciveness of the belief forming methods used).

If Cassam’s account of the vices is correct, why should this asymmetry exist? What makes a normative theory consequentialist is the contention that normative properties depend only on consequences.  The relevant consequences here are taken to be knowledge related. It seems odd that an evil demon is unable to turn vices into virtues, but could make virtues into vices. Given the demon’s power, one might expect that he should be able to equally make traits either virtues or vices, or lack the power to affect either one. Given his epistemic consequentialism, Cassam’s commitment to this asymmetry is puzzling, and so requires explanation.

How might an advocate of Obstructivism respond to the objection that an evil demon should not be able to turn a virtue into a vice by making its exercise falsity conducive? Here I shall briefly consider two possibilities. Cassam hints at one possibility in terms of normality. Immediately after defining intellectual vices as those qualities that impede effective inquiry, he suggests in a footnote, “It might be necessary to insert ‘normally’ before ‘impede’ to allow for unusual cases in which an intellectual vice abets effective inquiry.” (2015: 21) So the suggestion is that vices normally obstruct knowledge (and conversely, virtues are normally knowledge conducive). One might hold that an evil demon manipulating things so that, for example, open-mindedness always leads to falsity, constitutes an abnormal situation.

What Is Normal Anyway?

But what does ‘normality’ amount to? It cannot be statistically normality, of course, since an evil demon could see to it that open-mindedness and the other virtues always lead to falsity. In such worlds its metaphysically impossible for the exercise of such traits to lead to truth, and so to knowledge. Even so, in light of Montmarquet’s objection, one might hold that these qualities are nevertheless virtues, despite not being knowledge conducive. For this possible solution to amount to more than a promissory note, Obstructivists owe us an account of the relevant sense of normality.

A second possible response is to hold that being intellectually virtuous is not all or nothing. While in the demon world Galileo is not as virtuous as he would be if he had knowledge as the result of his intellectual character, he is still somewhat virtuous, and to be sure, he is not vicious. In a demon world Galileo has the virtue of employing methods that are knowledge-conducive in our world even if, in the demon world, his belief are always false[4].

This response moves from requiring knowledge conduciveness in the subject’s own world to being knowledge conducive in other worlds, for example in our actual world, assuming that this is a demon-free world and the exercise of our virtues tends to result in knowledge. While some form of this response may be workable, an immediate obstacle arises in accounting for the value of the virtues (and the disvalue of the vices).

Recall that an advantage of simple virtue-reliabilism was that it had a clear explanation of the value of the virtues: they are instrumentally valuable insofar as they tend to get truth in the worlds they are exercised in. A consequentialist account in terms of knowledge-conduciveness would have the same advantage: knowledge is also valuable, and the virtues are instrumentally valuable ways of acquiring knowledge. And a related account could be given for the disvalue of the intellectual vices.

But if we move from requiring actual knowledge-conduciveness, but only requiring it in some other privileged set of worlds, then the axiology becomes far less straightforward. Holding on to one’s consequentialism, one would be committed to holding that a virtue is valuable in a world because it is instrumental to knowledge in other circumstances, even ones that might never obtain. But does instrumental value relativize to other worlds in that way[5]? To take one example, a medicine is instrumentally valuable because of the diseases it is able to cure. It there are no diseases at all it can cure, it is very odd to claim that the medicine is still nevertheless instrumentally valuable, since there are some far off worlds (which may never obtain) where there are diseases that the medicine could cure. As this example shows, outside of the right environments, instrumental value disappears.

We ought to judge that Galileo has intellectual virtues, and that these virtues are valuable in the world he finds himself in, and not because of what these traits might lead to in radically different circumstances. Arguably for a character trait to be a virtue, having it should contribute to making its possessor a good person. So in the case of the intellectual virtues, having them should contribute to making one an intellectually good person[6]. And it seems that Galileo is an intellectually good person, even when in demon worlds.

Having the character traits, thinking styles, and attitudes he does contributes to making him an intellectually good person – and these seem to be good-making features of Galileo and his character, despite not being knowledge-conducive. If one judges that these traits are valuable, and Galileo is an intellectually good person in virtue of having them, it is puzzling to hold that something is valuable then and there, because of what it might lead to, if remote possibilities were to obtain (and which by hypothesis, can never obtain).

These are not meant to be knockdown arguments against Obstructivism. Its account of the nature of the vices (and virtues) is an improvement upon virtue-reliabilism, especially insofar as it fares better against Montmarquet’s objection than its immediate rivals. Nevertheless, I contend that it does not go far enough: without a fuller account of either how to block the possibility of an evil demon making putative virtues into vices, or else provide an explanation of why this is not an untoward result, Montmarquet’s objection still stands. Until then, it remains an open question exactly what it is that makes an intellectual vice a vice[7].

Contact details:


Baehr, Jason. The Inquiring Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Carter, J. Adam and Gordon, Emma C. “Openmindedness and Truth.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 44 (2014): 207-224.

Cassam, Quassim. “Stealthy Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, No. 10 (2015): 19-25.

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist 99 (2016): 159-180.

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Ontology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 20-27.

Cassam, Quassim. Vices of the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Forthcoming.

Greco, John. Achieving Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Kidd, I. “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 11-17.

Kwong, J.M.C. “Is Open-Mindedness Conducive to Truth?” Synthese 194 (2017): 1613-1626.

Madison, B.J.C. “Epistemic Value and the New Evil Demon.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 98 (2017a): 89–107.

Madison, B.J.C. “Is Open-Mindedness Truth-Conducive?” Synthese (2017b): 1-13.

Montmarquet, James. “Epistemic Virtue.” Mind 96 (1987): 482-497.

Sosa, Ernest. Knowledge in Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Sosa, Ernest. A Virtue Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Zagzebski, Linda. Virtues of the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[1] For a recent defense of this form of virtue-reliabilism, focusing on the key virtue of open-mindedness, see Kwong 2017. For discussion of Kwong’s view, and the more general question of the connection between open-mindedness and truth-conduciveness, see Madison 2017b.

[2] This is the key motivation underlying Carter and Gordon 2014 – their worry is to explain how it is that open-mindedness is a virtue, given its tenuous connection with truth. For a reply to Carter and Gordon that open-mindedness is truth-conducive, see Kwong 2017; for discussion, see Madison 2017b.

[3] For more on Montmarquet’s objection, and for a discussion of Linda Zagzebski’s reply to it in defense of a reliability condition on the virtues, see Madison 2017b, especially pp. 9-11.

[4] Cassam suggested this possible line of response in personal correspondence.

[5] For an argument that instrumental value does not work counterfactually in the way this proposal would require, see Madison 2017a. In that paper I argue that the value of epistemic justification is not exhausted by its instrumental value, and that plausibly, justification is valuable for its own sake. In addition, I argue against Sosa-style indexical-reliabilism (i.e. justification need not actually be reliably produced in a world, but it should be reliable in something like the normal world). I argue that these kinds of proposals cannot explain the value of epistemic justification.

[6] For the suggestion linking a character trait being a virtue with its thereby being a good making feature of the person who possesses it, see Baehr 2011: ch. 6.

[7] Thanks to Quassim Cassam and Rhiannon James for helpful comments.

Vice Ontology, Quassim Cassam

SERRC —  November 16, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Quassim Cassam, University of Warwick, UK,

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Ontology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 20-27.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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Image by Francois Meehan via Flickr / Creative Commons


One of the frustrations of trying to make headway with the rapidly expanding literature on epistemic vices is the absence of an agreed list of such vices. Vice epistemologists are more than happy to say what makes a character trait, attitude of way of thinking epistemically vicious and most provide examples of epistemic vices or lists of the kind of thing that have in mind. But these lists tend to be a hotchpotch. Different philosophers provide different lists and while there is some overlap there are also some significant variations. Closed-mindedness is a popular favourite but some vices that appear on some lists fail to appear on others. Here, for example, is Linda Zagzebksi’s list:

intellectual pride, negligence, idleness, cowardice, conformity, carelessness, rigidity, prejudice, wishful thinking, closed-mindedness, insensitivity to detail, obtuseness, and lack of thoroughness (1996: 152).

Confronted by a list like this several questions suggest themselves: why do these items make it onto the list and not others? Why not dogmatism or gullibility? Is idleness really an epistemic vice or a vice in a more general sense? Are all the items on the list equally important or are some more important than others? What is the relationship between the listed vices? It isn’t necessarily a criticism of vice epistemologists that they rarely tackle such questions. They are mainly concerned to develop a theoretical account of the notion of an epistemic vice, and individual vices are more often than not only mentioned for illustrative purposes.

An Order for Vice

But as vice epistemologists get down to listing epistemic vices they need to make it clear on what basis included items have been included and excluded items have been excluded. If some epistemic vices are deemed to be subservient to others it needs to be explained why. As Ian James Kidd notes in his valuable contribution, an important but neglected issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy, and this means having a story to tell about the basis on which epistemic vices can reasonably be grouped and ordered.[1]

Kidd rises to this challenge by drawing on the historically influential notion of a capital vice.[2] Capital vices are ‘source vices’ that give rise to other vices. Kidd asks whether there are capital epistemic vices and gives closed-mindedness as a possible example. According to Heather Battaly, whose view Kidd discusses, closed-mindedness is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options.[3] One way to be closed-minded is to be dogmatic but Battaly suggests that closed-mindedness is the broader notion: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic.

For Battaly, closed-mindedness does not require one already to have made up one’s mind since one can also be closed-minded in how one arrives at one’s beliefs. The upshot is that closed-mindedness is the ‘source of dogmatism’ (Kidd 2017: 14). This doesn’t settle the question whether closed-mindedness is a capital epistemic vice if genuine capital vices have more than one sub-vice.

Still, Kidd reads Battaly’s view of the link between closed-mindedness and dogmatism as providing at least some support for viewing the former as a capital epistemic vice. Furthermore, it looks as though the capitality relation is in this case a conceptual relation. It might be a psychological fact that being closed-minded tends to make a person dogmatic but the postulated connection between closed-mindedness and dogmatism looks conceptual: it is built into the concepts of closed-mindedness and dogmatism that being dogmatic is a way of being closed-minded.

To what are analyses of concepts of specific epistemic vices answerable? One might think: to the nature of those vices themselves but then it needs to be explained how talk of the ‘nature’ of epistemic vices is to be understood. In what sense do such vices have a ‘nature’ that analyses of them capture or fail to capture?

Going Back to Locke

This way of formulating the methodological question should resonate with readers of Locke, not least because it represents the question as turning on the ontology of vice. In Locke’s ontology there is a fundamental distinction between substances and modes. Substances, for Locke, are the ultimate subjects of predication and exist independently of us. Gold and horses are Lockean substances, and our complex ideas of substances aren’t just combinations of simple ideas or observable properties.

They are ideas of ‘distinct particular things subsisting by themselves’ with their own underlying nature that explains why they have the observable properties they have (II.xii.6).[4] Since our ideas of substances are ‘intended to be Representations of Substances, as they really are’ they are answerable to the nature of substances as they really are and aren’t guaranteed to be adequate, that is, to do justice to the actual nature of what they are intended to represent (

In contrast, our ideas of modes are ideas of qualities or attributes that can only exist as the qualities or attributes of a substance. Modes are dependent existences. Simple modes are combinations of the same simple idea whereas mixed modes combine ideas of several different kinds.[5] So, for example, theft is a mixed mode since the idea of theft is the idea of the concealed change of possession of something without the consent of the proprietor. Locke’s key claim about ideas of modes is that they are ‘voluntary Collections of simple Ideas, which the Mind puts together, without any reference to any real Archetypes’ (II.xxxi.3). It follows that these ideas can’t fail to be adequate since, as Michael Ayers puts it on Locke’s behalf, we form these ideas ‘without the need to refer to reality’ (1991: 57).[6] Take the idea of courage, which Locke regards as a mixed mode:

He that at first put together the Idea of Danger perceived, absence of disorder from Fear, sedate consideration of what was justly to be done, and executing it without that disturbance, or being deterred by the danger of it, had certainly in his Mind that complex Idea made up of that Combination: and intending it to be nothing else, but what it is; nor to have any other simple Ideas, but what it hath, it could not also be but an adequate idea: and laying this up in his Memory, with the name Courage annexed to it, to signifie it to others, and denominate from thence any Action he should observe to agree with it, had thereby a Standard to measure and dominate Actions by, as they agreed to it’ (II.xxxi.3).

When it comes to our ideas of substances it is reality that sets the standard for our ideas. With mixed modes, it is our ideas that set the standard for reality, so that an action is courageous just if it has the features that our idea of courage brings together. Locke doesn’t deny that ideas of mixed modes can be formed by experience and observation. For example, seeing two men wrestle can give one the idea of wrestling. For the most part, however, ideas of modes are the products of invention, of the ‘voluntary putting together of several simple Ideas in our own minds’ (II.xxii.9), without prior observation.

An interesting consequence of what might be described as Locke’s conceptualism about modes is that there is in a sense no external standard by reference to which disputes about what is and is not part of the idea of mixed modes can be settled.[7] Again Locke uses the example of courage to make his point.

Suppose that one person X’s idea of a courageous act includes the idea of ‘sedate consideration’ of ‘what is fittest to be done’ ( This is the idea of ‘an Action which may exist’ (ibid.) but another person Y has a different idea according to which a courageous action is one that is performed ‘without using one’s Reason or Industry’ (ibid.). Such actions are also possible, and Y’s idea is as ‘real’ as X’s. An action that displays courage by X’s lights might fail to do so by Y’s lights and vice versa but it seems that the only respect in which Y’s idea might count as ‘wrong, imperfect, or inadequate’ (II.xxxi.5) is if Y intends his idea of courage to be the same as X’s. Apart from that, both ideas are equally legitimate and can both be used in the classification of actions.

In fact, this isn’t quite Locke’s view since it omits one important qualification. At one point he argues that:

Mixed Modes and Relations, having no other reality, but what they have in the Minds of Men, there is nothing more required to those kinds of Ideas to make them real, but that they be so framed, that there be the possibility of existing comformable to them. These Ideas being themselves Archetypes, cannot differ from their Archetypes, and so cannot be chimerical, unless any one of them will jumble together in them inconsistent Ideas (

On reflection, however, consistency isn’t enough for our complex ideas of mixed modes to be ‘real’. For these ideas not to be ‘fantastical’ they must also ‘have a Conformity to the ordinary signification of the Name’ ( So it would count against Y’s (or X’s) conception of courage that it doesn’t accord with the ordinary meaning of common usage of words like ‘courage’ or ‘courageous’.

Return to the Present

What is the relevance of Locke’s discussion for the issues that Kidd is concerned with? A natural thought is that epistemic vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatism are, like the idea of courage, mixed modes. As noted previously, there is room for debate about how these epistemic vices are to be understood and how they are related. Starting with dogmatism, here is one account by Roberts and Wood:

A doctrine is a belief about the general character of the world, or some generally important aspect of the world, which bears the weight of many other beliefs. Thus a mother who refuses, in the face of what should be compelling evidence, to give up her belief that her son is innocent of a certain crime, is perhaps stubborn, obstinate, or blinded by her attachment, but she is not on that account dogmatic. By contrast, someone who holds irrationally to some fundamental doctrine, such as the tenets of Marxism or capitalism or Christianity, or some broad historical thesis such as that the Holocaust did not occur, is dogmatic (2007: 194-5).

Battaly sees things slightly differently. On her view, it is possible for a person to be dogmatic even in relation to relatively trivial beliefs or beliefs that aren’t representative of ideologies or doctrines. One can be dogmatic about whether one’s pet is well-behaved or whether one’s son is innocent of a crime. Roberts and Woods’ conception of dogmatism is narrow whereas Battaly’s conception is broad. Who is right?

If being ‘right’ is a matter of conceiving of dogmatism is a way that does justice to its real or true nature then the Lockean conceptualist says that there is no such thing. As a mixed mode, dogmatism is a voluntary collection of simple ideas. Roberts and Wood are free to stipulate that dogmatism has to do with doctrine and Battaly is free to reject this stipulation. Relative to Roberts and Woods’ complex idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s pet is well-behaved is too trivial to be dogmatic. Relative to Battaly’s idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s son is innocent of a certain crime might be dogmatic.

However, the disagreement between the broad and narrow accounts of dogmatism is, on a Lockean reading, a not very deep disagreement between two policies about the use of the term ‘dogmatic’. The most one can say is that the narrow account is closer to ordinary usage, and this might be a case for preferring that account. Beyond that, it’s not clear what is really at issue.

Turning to the relationship between dogmatism and closed-mindedness, Kidd bases his proposal that closed-mindedness is a capital vice of which dogmatism is an offspring on the idea that dogmatism is a sub-class of closed-mindedness: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but closed-mindedness doesn’t require one already to have made up one’s mind. Suppose, to borrow Battaly’s example, that P is the proposition that there was no Native American genocide. Even if a person starts out with no prior belief about the truth or falsity of P, their inquiry into its truth or falsity can still be closed-minded. They might, for example, systematically ignore evidence that P and look for evidence against P.

But if this is a how the inquirer behaves then a natural question would be: why is their inquiry into the truth or falsity of P closed-minded in just this way? And the answer that suggests itself is that they are closed-minded in just this way because they already really believe that P. So we do not have here a compelling case of closed-mindedness without the subject already having made up their mind about the topic at hand. The belief that P is implicit in their epistemic conduct and this means that their dogmatism can’t be distinguished from closed-mindedness in quite the way that Kidd recommends. Ordinarily, dogmatism and closed-mindedness aren’t clearly distinguished and there is bound to be an element of stipulation in any proposed way of carving up the territory.

Be Natural – Is There Anything Else?

This is not necessarily an objection to the notion of a capital vice. It is permissible for a vice epistemologist to try to bring some order to the chaos of ordinary thinking and represent one vice as an offshoot of another. It is important to recognize, however, that such proposed regimentations are just that: an attempt to introduce a degree of systematicity into a domain that lacks it. It’s helpful to compare the classification of epistemic vices with the classification of so-called ‘natural modes’. A criticism of Locke’s theory of mixed modes is that it ignores natural modes.[8] Examples of non-natural modes are the ideas of a lie, democracy and property. Lies are lies regardless of their underlying causes.[9]

In contrast, although diseases are modes, ‘the name of a disease will normally be introduced, and then be generally applied, on the basis of repeated experience of a set of symptoms, and on the assumption that on each occurrence they have the same common cause, whether a microbe or an underlying physiological condition’ (Ayers 1991: 91). However, there is a still a sense in which the individuality and boundary conditions of diseases are imposed by us. So, for example, diseases can be classified by bodily region, by organ, by effect, by the nature of the disease process, by aetiology, or on several other bases.[10] There is nothing that compels us to adopt one of these systems of classification rather than another and there is no absolute sense in which one particular system of classification is the ‘right’ one. With diseases and other such modes there is still the relativity to human interests and concerns that marks them out as modes rather than substances.

To make things even more complicated there are some modes that fall somewhere in between the natural and the non-natural. For example, one might take the view that perception and memory are such ‘intermediate’ modes. Perception is mechanism-dependent in the sense that it isn’t really perception unless some underlying physiological mechanism is involved. Plainly, however, no specific mechanism need be involved in all cases of perception. Human perception and dolphin perception both involve and require the operation of physiological mechanisms but the precise mechanisms will no doubt be very different in the two cases. The necessity of some mechanism is a respect in which intermediate modes are ‘natural’. The fact that no particular mechanism is required is a respect in which intermediate modes are akin to non-natural modes.[11]

In these terms, are epistemic vices natural, non-natural or intermediate modes? The discussion so far, with its emphasis on choice and stipulation in the classification of epistemic vices, might be thought to imply that such vices are non-natural but there is room for debate about this. Just as all manifestations of a particular disease are assumed to have a common cause at the level of physiology so it might be argued that the identification and attribution of epistemic vices is based on the assumption of a common psychological cause or mechanism. Epistemic vices are in this respect, and perhaps others too, like diseases.

Closed-mindedness is a case in point. There is the view that being closed-minded isn’t just a matter of being unwilling or unable to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options. A closed-minded person also has to have what Kruglanski calls a high need for ‘closure’, that is a low tolerance for confusion and ambiguity.[12] It might be argued that this is the distinctive psychological component of closed-mindedness that causally explains the various cognitive dispositions with which the trait is closely associated. In this case the psychological component is a motive. Would this justify the classification of closed-mindedness as a natural mode, an epistemic vice whose attribution in different cases is based on the assumption of a common motivational core that functions as a common psychological cause?

If so, then dogmatism is different from closed-mindedness in precisely this respect. What motivates a dogmatic commitment to a political doctrine might be a psychological need for closure but other motives are also possible. For example, a person’s dogmatism about a particular political doctrine might be a reflection of the ways in which a commitment to it is part of their identity, their sense of who they are.

Whether or not this is the right account of dogmatism it is doubtful that the motivational account applies epistemic vices generally. There are epistemic vices like stupidity, understood as foolishness rather than lack of intelligence, which lack an obvious motivational component. People aren’t motivated to be stupid in the way that they are supposedly motivated to be closed-minded. And even in the latter case one might wonder whether the desire for closure is strictly necessary or, even if it is, whether it is an independently identifiable component of closed-mindedness. One might count as having a high need for closure because one is closed-minded. Here, the attribution of the motive follows rather than underpins the attribution of the trait.

What Is a Vice of Knowledge?

So one should be careful about representing epistemic vices as natural modes. There is still the option of representing them as intermediate modes but it’s not clear whether epistemic vices are mechanism-dependent in anything like the way that perception is mechanism-dependent. This issue merits further discussion. In the meantime, the one thing that seems reasonably clear is that epistemic vices are epistemically harmful and blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible.[13] The sense in which they are epistemically harmful is that they systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. However, there is considerable room for maneuver when it comes to defining the individual character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that are epistemically harmful.

Where does this leave the notion of a capital vice and the project of identifying some epistemic vices as capital vices and others as offspring vices? To the extent that ordinary ways of talking about vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatic are imprecise there is a lot to be said for the project of establishing clear lines of demarcation and relations of priority between different epistemic vices.

However, any such project needs to be informed by a proper conception of what epistemic vices are, ontologically speaking, and a well-founded view as to whether the project consists in the discovery of real distinctions that are there anyway or rather in the imposition of boundaries that only exist in virtue of our recognition of them. To think of epistemic vices as modes is to be committed to an ‘impositionist’ reading of the capital vices project. The point at which this project starts to look suspect is the point at which it is conceived of as fundamentally a project of discovery.[14] The discovery in this domain is that there is, in a certain sense, nothing to discover.[15]

Contact details:


Ayers, M. R. Locke, Volume 2: Ontology. London: Routledge, 1991.

Battaly, H. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice,” Keynote Address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July 2017.

Cassam, Q. “Parfit on Persons.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 93 (1993): 17-37.

Cassam, Q. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist, 88 (2016): 159-80.

Kidd, I., “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6 (2017): 11-17.

Kruglanski, A. W. The Psychology of Closed-Mindedness. New York: Psychology Press, 2004.

Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Perry, D. L. “Locke on Mixed Modes, Relations, and Knowledge.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 5 (1967): 219-35.

Robbins, S. L, Robbins, J. H. & Scarpelli, D. G. “Classification of Diseases.” Retrieved from, 2017.

Roberts, R. C. & Wood, W. J. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Zagzebski, L. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[1] ‘Vice epistemology’, as I understand it, is the philosophical study of the nature, identity and significance of epistemic vices. See Cassam 2016. ‘Vice epistemologists’ are philosophers who work on, or in, vice epistemology. Notable vice epistemologists include Heather Battaly, Ian Kidd and Alessandra Tanesini.

[2] Kidd 2017.

[3] Battaly 2017.

[4] All references in this form are to a book, chapter and section of Locke 1975, which was originally published in 1689.

[5] Locke’s examples of mixed modes include beauty, theft, obligation, drunkenness, a lie, hypocrisy, sacrilege, murder, appeal, triumph, wrestling, fencing, boldness, habit, testiness, running, speaking, revenge, gratitude, polygamy, justice, liberality, and courage. This list is from Perry 1967.

[6] Locke illustrates the arbitrariness of mixed modes by noting that we have the complex idea of patricide but no special idea for the killing of a son or a sheep.

[7] There is more on ‘conceptualism’ in Cassam 1993.

[8] For a helpful discussion of this issue see Ayers 1991, chapter 8. My understanding of Locke is heavily indebted to Ayers’ commentary.

[9] See Ayers 1991: 97.

[10] For more on the classification of diseases see Robbins, Robbins and Scarpelli 2017.

[11] This paragraph is a summary of the discussion of intermediate modes in Ayers 1991: 96-7.

[12] Kruglanski 2004: 6-7.

[13] This is the essence of what I call ‘obstructivism’ about epistemic vice, the view that epistemic vices are blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. For obstructivism, epistemic vices aren’t delineated by their motives.

[14] I’m not suggesting that this is how Kidd conceives of the project. His approach is more in keeping with impositionism.

[15] Thanks to Heather Battaly and Ian James Kidd for helpful comments.

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, University of Nottingham,

Kidd, Ian James. “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 11-16.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: jim wolfe, via flickr

The vices of the mind are the subject of vice epistemology, characterised by Quassim Cassam (2016) as the study of the nature, identity, and epistemological significance of those attitudes, character traits, and ways of thinking that obstruct enquiry. These vices range from the familiar, like arrogance and dogmatism, to the more esoteric, like epistemic insensibility and epistemic insouciance. At the moment, the small but growing body of work in vice epistemology is devoted to three broad sorts of issues:

First, to foundational issues, concerning the nature of epistemic vices—are they confined to character traits, or might they include attitudes and ways of thinking, as Cassam (2016) and Alessandra Tanesini (2016) argue?

Second, to studies of specific vices, most obviously the vices of epistemic injustice, but also closed-mindedness, hubris, servility, timidity, to name just a few. Specific studies also include taxonomic projects, ways of organising these vices, for instance by clustering them around the virtues they oppose.

Third, there is work in applied vice epistemology, studies of how the vices manifest in specific contexts, practices, and communities—of how, for instance, certain conditions under which scientific enquiry is conducted may nourish the exercise of vices like timidity.

By organising current work in vice epistemology in this way, it’s clear that this discipline is tracking the dialectics of virtue epistemology. In this journal, Cassam (2015) proposed stealthy vices as an important concept for understanding epistemic vices. Using his argument, I propose another—capital vices.

The Vice Tradition and Capital Vices

An important issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy. By what sorts of features or properties can we reasonably group epistemically vicious character traits, attitudes, and ways of thinking? It’s an important task to identify and describe the various vices of the mind, but vice epistemologists should do more than produce undifferentiated lists of thosee sundry vices. After being identifying, they need to organised in illuminating and instructive ways, as Jason Baehr (cf. 2011, 21f) did for the epistemic virtues, grouping by him according to the specific ‘demands’ of enquiry to which they respond.

An intriguing taxonomic strategy, offered by Cassam, is to argue that certain epistemic vices are stealthy, in the sense that, ‘by their nature, they evade detection from those who have them’ (2015, 20). Stealthy vices are not, of course, impossible to detect—just harder to, since they incorporate features that tend to conceal them successfully from those who have them; as such, they are self-concealing.

Cassam’s examples of stealthy vices include carelessness, a disposition to fail to perform epistemic tasks, including those constitutive of ‘conscious critical reflection’, including critical reflection on one’s own epistemic psychology. A careless person will tend to impede enquiry, for by not caring enough about epistemic goods, they fail to perform consistently and adequately the various tasks one needs to contribute to it. But that includes self-enquiry, which includes attending to actual or potential deficiencies in one’s epistemic capacities, dispositions, and performance. If so, that vice is likely to persist, at least until some other events force one to reflect critically, or until someone points it out for us (see Cassam 2015, 21-24ff). Moreover, it is easy to imagine other candidate stealthy vices, self-concealing by their nature (a further example, to which I later return, is closed-mindedness—one option an agent might be closed to is the possibility of their being epistemically vicious.)

Cassam’s concept of self-concealing, ‘stealthy’ vices offers a compelling way to reflect on and taxonomies the vices of the mind. Certain vices will be stealthy, while others will be more overt, even to the point of being self-disclosing. But here I want to suggest another way, distinct but complementary, taken from the history of philosophical and theological reflection on the vices. This is the idea of capital vices, an idea that has, historically, been mainly confined to moral and spiritual character traits, but is able to play a role in vice epistemology—or so I want to propose.

The best introduction to the concept of a capital vice is Rebecca DeYoung’s excellent 2009 book, Glittering Vices, a history of the vices tradition in the West. For the first thousand years of that tradition, reflection on the vices was motivated by practical and pastoral purposes. Concern with vices was motivated by concerns with ethical and spiritual self-examination and formation, initially following Aristotle, but developing rapidly in the early Christian period. Indeed, the first list of the vices was compiled by the 4th century desert father, Evagrius of Pontus (346-399AD), who described the seven ‘thoughts’ or ‘demons’ that afflict desert hermits. Many of his entrants persist today as standard vices—gluttony, avarice, pride—alongside others now either lost or substantially transformed, such as acedia, a spiritually-inflected weariness or lethargy, that later developed into the vices of sloth or laziness.

Such early compilations of the vices quickly developed, after Evagrius, into a more systematic project of revising and, crucially, ordering the vices. John Cassian (260-430AD)—a disciple of Evagrius—made a crucial move, by widening the scope of vice theory from solitary desert monks to communal spiritual life. Vice was made an active concern for humans in general, laity as well as clerisy, social as well as solitary. A crucial subsequent development was Pope Gregory’s (540-604 AD) editing of the list of vices down to seven—a number of biblical significance—which, importantly, made pride their root. (A historically late consequence of this, for vice epistemology, is receipt of a rich vocabulary for talking about humility and its opponent vices.)

An emerging problem in the vice tradition was that of reasons why certain vices made the list, while others did not. The worry became acute since, as DeYoung (2009:33) remarks, the seven that came to be entrenched are neither the only vices, nor indeed ‘the worst possible or the most frequent vices’. The formalised inclusion of an articulated set of vices into a list of the vices—let alone the capital vices—must be justified, not least given the possibility of alternative lists. The main response of the vice tradition, explains DeYoung, was development of the new concept of capital vicescapit in Latin meaning, of course, ‘head’, as in a ‘source’, ‘origin’, or, in her more poetic term, ‘fountainhead’. Such vices are therefore self-proliferating.

Using this new concept, one can argue that the capital vices have a special status as ‘source vices’, distinguished by their capacity to ‘proliferate other vices’, which she calls ‘offspring vices’ (DeYoung 2009, 33f). To use a tree metaphor favoured by vice theorists at the time, certain vices are the ‘trunk’, from which other vices ‘branch off’. It is for this reason that capital vices are, in Gabriele Taylor’s (2006, 124) phrase, ‘corruptive of the self’. Although she does not define the term, I’ve argued elsewhere for a vice-centric conception of epistemic corruption, where x is corrupting if it creates conditions conducive to the development and exercise of epistemic vices (Kidd 2015, 70f). If there are capital vices, then they are corrupting, for they increase one’s vulnerability to other vices, by creating internal psychological conditions for their development. A capital vice, once in place, provides conditions in which a sub-set of offshoot vices can begin to develop.

Identifying the capital vices is important, on this view, for educative and ameliorative purposes. In the early Christian tradition, vice was a problem because it obstructs our capacities for moral self-knowledge and spiritual progress—a spiritual variant on what Cassam dubs the ‘obstructivist’ account of vices. DeYoung (2009, 34) explains that, in the vice tradition, ‘the goal is to get to the problem’s source, and root it out, thereby eliminating a whole host of related vices’. If one cuts off the offspring vices at their roots, they will, hopefully, wither and die. A further advantage of thinking in terms of capital vices, continues DeYoung (2009, 34), is that it ‘encourages people to see certain sins as likely indicators of deeper moral problems and to see their connection to that great original sin, pride’.

The hope was that efforts at the purgation of vices would be more efficient if one’s energies were focused at the fundamental source—the deep ‘roots’—of the corruption. An advantage of this was that strategies for combating the vices can take forms other than urging cultivation of the virtues; the early Christians favoured spiritual exercises, fasting, psalmody, and so on. This matters, since a major problem with stealthy vices is that they can only be combated if they can be detected, but their detection often seems contingent on the exercise of a variety of epistemic virtues—like open-mindedness, alertness, and so on (cf. Cassam 2016, 21-22).

After this brief sketch of the origins of the concept of a capital vice in the vice tradition, let me ask how it can be applied to vice epistemology.

Capital Epistemic Vices

Can the concept of capital vices be usefully applied to our efforts to understand and combat epistemic vices? Since this is a big question, break it down into the following:

1. What makes an epistemic vice a capital vice?
2. Which are the capital epistemic vices?
3. How, if at all, are capital vices related to their offshoot vices?

Sharp-eyed readers will recognise that these questions are modelled on those that Cassam (2015, 20) asks of stealthiness and stealthy vices. Answering these questions will require detailed investigations of putatively capital vices and the putative offshoots vices associated with them—work that I encourage vice epistemologists to pursue. It also requires systematic reflection on issues specific to capital vices. Is the ‘capitality’ relation conceptual, causal, or psychological? Could an agent develop a capital vice without giving also developing offshoot vices—or are those ‘offshoots’ inevitable? Are there other ways to explain the dangers or harmfulness of capital vices than invoking their self-proliferating potentiality? If there are capital vices, how many are there, and how do they relate to one another? Might there be capital epistemic virtues, and, if so, what is their relation to the capital epistemic vices?

Instead of exploring these questions, let me make a modest start on the most basic issue, that of whether there are capital epistemic vices. I offer an example of a plausible candidate capital vice—closed-mindedness.

In a recent paper, Heather Battaly (2017) offers a sophisticated account of the vice of closed-mindedness. At its core, it is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with—to be ‘closed to’—relevant intellectual options. Consistent with her pluralism about vice, closed-mindedness is objectionable since it has bad effects and reflects bad motives and values on the part of the agent (see Battaly 2014). Crucially, such vicious failures to engage with intellectual options can take different forms, since there are different options to which one could be closed, and different ways in which closure can manifest. One might fail to engage seriously with relevant methods, topics, ways of thinking by scorning them or perhaps deny the intelligibility of alternatives to beliefs or views that one already holds. On the basis of this second possibility, Battaly proposes that the vice of dogmatism should be understood as a ‘sub-set of closed-mindedness’, a particular form that it can take. Dogmatism is one way—among others—that an agent can be closed to intellectual options.

Although my sketch glosses the details of Battaly’s rich account, it offers clear reasons for regarding closed-mindedness as a capital epistemic vice. Certainly it has many of the features that upgrade a vice to capital status. At the most basic, it secures the status of closed-mindedness as a vice, whether by reference to its typical effects, motives, or values. If something isn’t a vice, then it can’t be a capital vice. An essential difference, though, is that closed-mindedness is plausibly identified to be at the root of other vices—dogmatism, for instance. If so, closed-mindedness is acts as the source of dogmatism, which takes its place as what Battaly calls a ‘sub-vice’ or as what DeYoung calls an ‘offshoot vice’. Built into the idea of capital vices is a principle that to possess an offshoot vice is always to possess, even if only in a subspecific form, a capital vice. On Battaly’s account, though one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic, one cannot be dogmatic without being closed-mindedness. For to be closed-minded about alternatives to one’s beliefs or views just is to be closed-minded, within and about the doxastic domain.

These two features of closed-mindedness do not, in themselves, secure for us the claim that it is a capital vice. Granted, it’s a vice that can admit of sub-vices, but some further features are needed. If the early theorists in the vice tradition are right, we would also need to show that closed-mindedness admits of other sub-vices—no less than sixteen in the case of sloth, for one early Christian vice theorist (see DeYoung 2009, 34). Whether it does or not, I can’t say, though my intuition is that closed-mindedness is the root or source of several other sub-vices. If so, then we can become more confident about its provisional status as a capital epistemic vice.

Upgrading that intuition will require further investigation of the array of vices proximal to closed-mindedness, and studies of other candidates. A prime candidate is epistemic laziness, roughly defined as a culpable failure to acquire or exercise the epistemic capacities required for enquiry (Kidd, unpublished manuscript). Arguably, such laziness lies at the root of a whole range of vices characterised by failures to do epistemic work—think of vices like inaccuracy or rigidity, both of which are, ultimately, fails to do the work needed to ensure accuracy or revision of one’s beliefs. If laziness is a capital vice, then its various sub-vices may be distinguished by their different effects, values, or motives. A person may not care enough about the status of their beliefs to put in the epistemic work, such that laziness trumps diligence.

The case of epistemic laziness is a speculation, pending further work, and I’m more confident about closed-mindedness. But hopefully these ideas offer to vice epistemologists a useful concept, one that played important and useful role in earlier stages of the vice tradition. Capital epistemic vices may help us think about an obvious set of issues, like the ontology and structure of the vices of the mind. If so, we can retrieve from the rich, neglected vice tradition a concept that may be crucial to the vice epistemological project. Indeed, we might come to include the category of self-proliferating capital vices alongside self-concealing stealthy vices. Hopefully this can show the value of building into vice epistemology an historical dimension that it has, so far, tended to lack.


I offer my thanks to Heather Battaly and Quassim Cassam for helpful comments on this piece.


Baehr, Jason. The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Battaly, Heather. “Varieties of Epistemic Vice.” In The Ethics of Belief edited by Jon Matheson and Rico Vitz, 51-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Battaly, Heather. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice.” Keynote address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July, 2017.

Cassam, Quassim. “Stealthy Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 19-25.

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Epistemology” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016): 159-180.

DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009.

Kidd, Ian James. “Educating for Intellectual Humility.” In Intellectual Virtues and Education: Essays in Applied Virtue Epistemology, edited by Jason Baehr, 54-70. London: Routledge, 2015.

Kidd, Ian James. “The Vices of Epistemic Laziness.” unpublished manuscript.

Tanesini, Alessandra “‘Calm Down, Dear’: Intellectual Arrogance, Silencing, and Ignorance.” Aristotelian Society: Supplementary Volume 90, no. 1 (2016): 71-92.

Taylor, Gabriele. Deadly Vices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Author Information: Ian James Kidd, Durham University,

Kidd, Ian James. “Cranks, Pluralists, and Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 7-9.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Holly Hayes, via flickr

A debate that began about how best to understand Feyerabend’s motivations for his ‘defenses’ of astrology has, thanks to Massimo Pigliucci (2017) and Jamie Shaw (2017), developed into a larger reflection on pluralism. Along the way, our exchange explored the authority of science, demarcation problems, and, in its most recent stages, the status and rationality of science. In his contribution to this exchange, Shaw give an overview of the main principles of Feyerabend’s pluralism, namely, the commitments to proliferation and tenacity. Together, they function methodologically to urge scientists to develop theories that are inconsistent with established points of view, and then to defend those alternatives, even in the face of criticisms and obstacles (see Oberheim 2006).

Understanding Pluralism

The general style of argument for pluralism, developed by Feyerabend during the 1960s, merits two comments. The first is that, as Feyerabend himself constantly affirmed, the pluralistic nature of scientific enquiry is perfectly obvious to anyone with acquaintance with its history or practice. In his writings, the methodologists to admire are not philosophers of science, isolated in their studies from the laboratory workbench; rather, they are those reflective scientists, like Einstein, Mach, and the other heroes, whose epistemic authority on matters of methodology is rooted in their practical experience. So, when Pigliucci remarks that Feyerabend was complaining about nothing, since pluralism has always been a hallmark of scientific theorizing, he’s quite right—for one deep complaint of Against Method was a lack of pluralism in philosophical models of science, not in science itself.

The second comment on Feyerabend’s arguments for pluralism is that, in his hands, they were unsystematically developed—as one should expect, of someone hostile to theoretical pretensions. What one finds throughout his work, instead, are experiments with different types of argument for pluralism, adapted to changing concerns and interests. A job for later scholars, most obviously Eric Oberheim (2006) and Hasok Chang (2012, chapter 5), was therefore to give a more systematic treatment of ‘Feyerabendian’ arguments for pluralism—ones informed by, but not articulated in, the writings of, everyone’s favorite epistemological anarchist. Chang, for instance, divides pro-pluralist arguments in terms of those with ‘benefits of tolerance’ and ‘benefits of interaction’, locating instances of both mixed up in Feyerabend’s writings.

At this point, though, we run into the worries that motivate Pigliucci; namely, that these forms of sensible pluralisms are apt to degenerate, at least in Feyerabend’s hands, into grossly permissive forms of the ‘anything goes!’ variety. Closely attending to the history of science can, it’s true, give us enough cautionary tales to keep open a space for alternative theories—no one doubts that. But what’s not reasonable, argues Pigliucci, ‘is for Feyerabend to think that astrology, or demonology, or homeopathy, are alternative “theories” that ought to be included in the modern pluralist portfolio’ (2017, 2). An appeal for pluralism should not degenerate into an abuse of pluralism, and the million-dollar question is how to mark the point of that shift in a principled way. Unfortunately, Feyerabend does not offer a crisp answer to that question. But, I think, there is no need for one in the case of astrology.

In my original article (Kidd 2016a), I argued that the defenses of astrology were not motivated by a sense of astrology’s epistemic value—so, on my reading, there’s no call for inclusion of astrology and the rest in our ‘pluralist portfolio’. There was no question of including astrology within the modern scientific imagination as a first-order epistemic resource, able to inform contemporary enquiries. That being so, there’s no need to demarcate inclusion worries. Indeed, what one sees in Feyerabend’s essay, ‘The Strange Case of Astrology’, is not really a defense of astrology at all, but rather of the epistemic virtues that are integral to the character of scientists qua epistemic authorities. Astrology was discussed since it was attacked, by a group of scientists, who failed to provide easily-available arguments against it, and who instead relied on dogmatic assertion, arrogant rhetoric, and appeals to authority. It was this bad epistemic behavior that really motivated Feyerabend, rather than any sense on his part that astrology belongs in our pluralist portfolio. I suggested that Feyerabend’s purposes in defending astrology can be profitably understood as an appeal to epistemic virtues and vices—that was he was really concerned with are the virtues of the mind scientists ought to evince, and the danger to their authority if they evince the related vices of the mind (see Battaly 2014, Cassam 2016).

Epistemic Virtues and Vices

I want to suggest that, at this point in our debate, another role for epistemic vices comes into view. Pigliucci rightly remarks that ‘a constant danger for pluralism of any sort is that it risks becoming a fairly lazy intellectual position, where anything goes because one is not willing to do the hard work of narrowing down its scope’ (2017, 1). Two points should be made here. The first is that pluralism can admit of epistemically vicious forms, licensing failures to do the sorts of epistemic work that effective enquiry requires—if ‘anything goes’, one can suspend the hard work of investigating and evaluating those things, and shrug off the responsibility to remove those that aren’t. Although pluralism may enjoy benefits of tolerance and interaction, as Chang calls them, it can also pose costs—disorientation, confusion, and incapacitation, say. It is not always virtuous to be pluralistic, a point that Feyerabend often neglects.

A second point is that Feyerabend, at least as I read him, tends to only see pluralism as virtuous. Throughout his writings, the underlying sense is that being pluralistic is edifying, an expression of—and means to exercise—admirable qualities, like humility, imaginativeness, and open-mindedness. An epistemic anarchist, after all, enjoys an openness unavailable to the poor Kuhnian normal scientist, stifled by their self-imposed dogmatism—a virtue-epistemic aspect of Feyerabend’s famous essay, ‘Consolations for the Specialist’ (1970), that has gone unnoticed. Indeed, note that Feyerabend’s two pluralist principles can both function as virtues of enquirers, as well as norms of enquiry: tenacity can be an epistemic virtue, a disposition close to the virtue of epistemic perseverance (Battaly forthcoming), and proliferation might not itself be an epistemic virtue, but surely requires the exercise of several, including creativity and diligence. Indeed, Feyerabend constantly praises qualities like creativity, imaginativeness, and tolerance while also castigating vices like arrogance and dogmatism.

I want to suggest that we take seriously the idea that certain epistemic stances can be epistemically virtuous or vicious. Clearly, the stance of those scientists who attacked astrology was epistemically vicious, specifically, arrogant and dogmatic, as I argued in my original paper. I think that certain pluralistic stances can be vicious, too, such as the overly permissive sorts that Pigliucci criticizes. But other pluralist stances can be virtuous, encouraging tolerance and imaginativeness and other admirable qualities, perhaps as in Chang’s account. The claim is not that a stance can have epistemic virtues or vices in the full-blooded ways that human agents do, only that stances can have the essential components of those virtues and vices. I have given a methodology for appraising stances in virtue-and-vice-epistemic terms elsewhere and offered a set of examples (Kidd 2016b, Kidd forthcoming a). In one of these, I argue that many forms of scientism, construed as a stance, is epistemically vicious (Kidd forthcoming b). Investigating the the various stances emerging in this debate in vice-epistemic terms would be a worthy project. Perhaps what is really wrong with doctrinaire scientism, flaccid pluralism, and uncritical zeal for pseudoscientific sentiment is that all of these are, deep down, epistemically vicious.


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Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016): 159-180.

Chang, Hasok. Is Water H2O? Evidence, Pluralism, Realism. Dordrecht, Springer, 2012.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Consolations for the Specialist.” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 197-231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Kidd, Ian James. “Why Did Feyerabend Defend Astrology? Integrity, Virtue, and the Authority of Science.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016a): 464-482.

Kidd, Ian James. “Charging Others with Epistemic Vice.” The Monist 99, no. 3 (2016b): 181-197.

Kidd, Ian James. “Epistemic Vices in Public Debate: The Case of New Atheism.” In New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, edited by Christopher Cotter and Philip Quadrio. Dordrecht, Springer, forthcoming a.

Kidd, Ian James. “Is Scientism Epistemically Vicious?” In Scientism: Problems and Prospects, edited by Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels, and René van Woudenberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming b.

Oberheim, Eric. Feyerabend’s Philosophy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: A Response to Shaw.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no.7 (2017): 1-6.

Shaw, Jamie. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: On Demarcation, Epistemic Virtues, and Astrology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 74-88.