Archives For epistemic virtues

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech,

Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.

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Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is Ashley Shew’s debut monograph and in it she argues that we need to reassess and possibly even drastically change the way in which we think about and classify the categories of technology, tool use, and construction behavior. Drawing from the fields of anthropology, animal studies, and philosophy of technology and engineering, Shew demonstrates that there are several assumptions made by researchers in all of these fields—assumptions about intelligence, intentionality, creativity and the capacity for novel behavior.

Many of these assumptions, Shew says, were developed to guard against the hazard of anthropomorphizing the animals under investigation, and to prevent those researchers ascribing human-like qualities to animals that don’t have them. However, this has led to us swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, engaging in “a kind of speciesist arrogance” which results in our not ascribing otherwise laudable characteristics to animals for the mere fact that they aren’t human.[1]

Shew says that we consciously and unconsciously appended a “human clause” to all of our definitions of technology, tool use, and intelligence, and this clause’s presumption—that it doesn’t really “count” if humans aren’t the ones doing it—is precisely what has to change.

In Animal Constructions, Shew’s tone is both light and intensely focused, weaving together extensive notes, bibliography, and index with humor, personal touches, and even poignancy, all providing a sense of weight and urgency to her project. As she lays out the pieces of her argument, she is extremely careful about highlighting and bracketing out her own biases, throughout the text; an important fact, given that the whole project is about the recognition of assumptions and bias in human behavior. In Chapter 6, when discussing whether birds can be said to understand what they’re doing, Shew says that she

[relies] greatly on quotations…because the study’s authors describe crow tool uses and manufacture using language that is very suggestive about crows’ technological understanding and behaviors—language that, given my particular philosophical research agenda, might sound biased in paraphrase.[2]

In a chapter 6 endnote, Shew continues to touch on this issue of bias and its potential to become prejudice, highlighting the difficulty of cross-species comparison, and noting that “we also compare the intelligence of culturally and economically privileged humans with that of less privileged humans, a practice that leads to oppression, exploitation, slavery, genocide, etc.”[3] In the conclusion, she elaborates on this somewhat, pointing out the ways in which biases about the “right kinds” of bodies and minds have led to embarrassments and atrocities in human history.[4] As we’ll see, this means that the question of how and why we categorize animal construction behaviors as we do has implications which are far more immediate and crucial than research projects.

The content of Animal Constructions is arranged in such a way as to make a strong case for the intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity of animals, throughout, but it also provides several contrast cases in which we see that there are several animal behaviors which might appear to be intentional, but which are the product of instinct or the extended phenotype of the species in question.[5] According to Shew, these latter cases do more than act as exceptions that test the rule; they also provide the basis for reframing the ways in which we compare the behaviors of humans and nonhuman animals.

If we can accept that construction behavior exists on a spectrum or continuum with tool use and other technological behaviors, and we can come to recognize that animals such as spiders and beavers make constructions as a part of the instinctual, DNA-based, phenotypical natures, then we can begin to interrogate whether the same might not be true for the things that humans make and do. If we can understand this, then we can grasp that “the nature of technology is not merely tied to the nature of humanity, but to humanity in our animality” (emphasis present in original).[6]

Using examples from animal studies reaching back several decades, Shew discusses experimental observations of apes, monkeys, cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and birds. Each example set moves further away from the kind of animals we see as “like us,” and details how each group possess traits and behaviors humans tend to think only exist in ourselves.[7] Chimps and monkeys test tool-making techniques and make plans; dolphins and whales pass hunting techniques on to their children and cohort, have names, and social rituals; birds make complex tools for different scenarios, adapt them to novel circumstances, and learn to lie.[8]

To further discuss the similarities between humans and other animals, Shew draws on theories about the relationship between body and mind, such as embodiment and extended mind hypotheses, from philosophy of mind, which say that the kind of mind we are is intimately tied to the kinds of bodies we are. She pairs this with work from disability studies which forwards the conceptual framework of “bodyminds,” saying that they aren’t simply linked; they’re the same.[9] This is the culmination of descriptions of animal behaviors and a prelude a redefinition and reframing of the concepts of “technology” and “knowledge.”

Editor's note - My favourite part of this review roundtable is scanning through pictures of smart animals

Dyson the seal. Image by Valerie via Flickr / Creative Commons


In the book’s conclusion, Shew suggests placing all the products of animal construction behavior on a two-axis scale, where the x-axis is “know-how” (the knowledge it takes to accomplish a task) and the y-axis is “thing knowledge” (the information about the world that gets built into constructed objects).[10] When we do this, she says, we can see that every made thing, be it object or social construct (a passage with important implications) falls somewhere outside of the 0, 0 point.[11] This is Shew’s main thrust throughout Animal Constructions: That humans are animals and our technology is not what sets us apart or makes us special; in fact, it may be the very thing that most deeply ties us to our position within the continuum of nature.

For Shew, we need to be less concerned about the possibility of incorrectly thinking that animals are too much like us, and far more concerned that we’re missing the ways in which we’re still and always animals. Forgetting our animal nature and thinking that there is some elevating, extra special thing about humans—our language, our brains, our technologies, our culture—is arrogant in the extreme.

While Shew says that she doesn’t necessarily want to consider the moral implications of her argument in this particular book, it’s easy to see how her work could be foundational to a project about moral and social implications, especially within fields such as animal studies or STS.[12] And an extension like this would fit perfectly well with the goal she lays out in the introduction, regarding her intended audience: “I hope to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology.”[13]

In Animal Constructions, Shew has built a toolkit filled with fine arguments and novel arrangements that should easily provide the instruments necessary for anyone looking to think differently about the nature of technology, engineering, construction, and behavior, in the animal world. Shew says that “A full-bodied approach to the epistemology of technology requires that assumptions embedded in our definitions…be made clear,”[14] and Animal Constructions is most certainly a mechanism by which to deeply delve into that process of clarification.

Contact details:


Shew, Ashley. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

[1] Ashley Shew, Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge p. 107

[2] Ibid., p. 73

[3] Ibid., p. 89, n. 7

[4] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[5] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[6] Ibid., p. 19

[7] On page 95, Shew makes brief mention various instances of octopus tool use; more of these examples would really drive the point home.

[8] Shew, pg. 35—51; 53—65; 67—89

[9] Ibid., p. 108

[10] Ibid., pg. 110—119

[11] Ibid., p. 118

[12] Ibid., p. 16

[13] Ibid., p. 11

[14] Ibid., p 105

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.

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  • 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.

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.

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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.


Battaly, Heather. “Intellectual Perseverance.” Journal of Moral Philosophy, forthcoming.

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.

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.