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

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. This essay is published in two separate posts, the first of which is available at this link. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-49a

Pictured here, an artist’s rendering of Christian Quast and his uncle who can do plumbing. Some liberties in representation have been taken.
Image by Natalie Bowers via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

. . . . In a word, Quast cannot have his cake and eat it too.

On the Fundamental Ingredients of Expertise

The balanced account suffers from a second problem pertaining to the aforementioned ingredients of expertise, namely primary competence, secondary competence, and intellectual virtues (see also Hardwig 1994, 92). According to ExpertF-C-M, expertise requires an undefeated disposition to fulfill a particular service function adequately at the moment of assessment.

In turn, all three ingredients feature in the undefeated-disposition requirement, in that lacking any of them defeats the attribution of expertise. In this section, I demonstrate that this account is too strong, as it poses unduly restrictive requirements for one to be an expert. In particular, I worry about secondary competence and what Quast calls “intellectually virtuous character” as necessary components of expertise.

Let us consider secondary, or explanatory, competence first: the ability to give an account of one’s performances. We have already seen that on the balanced account, failing to display secondary competence defeats expertise because, as the wine-consultant case shows, we expect from experts that they can give us explanations regarding their services.

However, the plausibility of this understanding of expertise entirely rests on the specifics of the example Quast introduces. In the proposed case, a subject challenges the wine consultant’s evaluation because of its inconsistency with the subject’s expectations and the testimony of the former owner of the cellar. Notice, though, that the disposition to account for one’s performances—in particular, to laypeople—requires an entirely different set of abilities than the ones necessary to fulfill one’s service function successfully. The former set includes such intellectual virtues as a sensitivity to a layperson’s epistemic resources, communicative clarity, intellectual generosity, and possibly other abilities.[1]

A civil engineer could well possess primary competence in demolishing or rebuilding a bridge and the ability to discuss it with other experts yet lack the competence to provide effective explanations of their techniques, strategies, and related risks to a lay audience. Something similar happens in sports. A lot of amazing athletes can do extremely complicated things that are generally out of reach for most human beings, yet they may not be able properly to account for what they do.

They can show you these actions hundreds of times, but if you ask them to tell you how they do that, you might feel extremely disappointed or confused by their explanations. This is why not all the greatest sport heroes are good coaches and not all the best civil engineers can effectively account for what they do to a lay audience. For as I will stress in the final section, primary competence and secondary competence are, in a sense, different kinds of expertise.

A Private or People’s Expertise

The required combination of these competences for a proper understanding of expertise on Quast’s view is somewhat surprising if we bear in mind that he wants to confer objective expertise to “private experts,” who can offer us quite specific services such as fixing some leaky drain pipes. In Quast’s private-expert case, it seems odd to require that Christian’s father-in-law be able to give an account of how he is going to fix the pipe in order to fulfill the function of a private expert.

For, on the one hand, the relevant contrast class includes two individuals, namely Christian and his wife, who—as we are told—are both inexperienced in these kinds of handicraft matters. On the other, Christian’s father-in-law might even lack the necessary abilities properly to explain how he will repair the pipes.

These considerations make it hard to see why giving an appropriate account of the provided service should be necessary for Christian’s father-in-law to be an expert on a functionalist view that aims at being in a position to grant private experts objective expertise.

Consider now the other ingredient of expertise on Quast’s view, namely one’s intellectual character in the sense of their willingness to manifest primary and secondary competence when appropriate. The above considerations about the intellectual abilities required for one to deliver proper explanations of one’s service should provide sufficient reason to consider possession of an intellectually virtuous character as a relevant component of the competences required for one to be an expert rather than as mere willingness to manifest such competences.[2] Thus, in the remainder of this critical notice I shall simply tackle the willingness component and, in particular, the willingness to manifest secondary competence when appropriate.

Suppose a physicist, call him Ivory Tower, is completely reluctant to share anything related to his work with people, especially laypersons. Ivory’s social interactions are limited to what’s required for him to keep his position at his institution. Ivory works in optics, and, in particular, he is developing reliable ways to see through walls by using special cameras. More specifically, he is working on a project that would allow rescue teams to individuate people when the terrain is dangerous and would allow cars to avoid accidents by identifying obstacles or vehicles from around the corner.

Quast’s view commits us to conclude that Ivory lacks expertise in optics or whatever more specific subfield he is working in because he fails to display the required willingness to give an account of his performances when appropriate. This verdict is unsatisfying in general, as it strikes us as evident that Ivory’s extremely sophisticated work in optics should suffice to grant him the status of an expert.

Furthermore, the verdict is unsatisfying even from the perspective of a functionalist account of expertise, as Quast’s purports to be. For despite lacking willingness to explain his work to others, Ivory is surely serving laypeople’s needs. He does so by attempting to solve problems in optics and providing the community with new resources rather than by making himself accountable for his work to a lay audience, but this merely amounts to another relevant way an expert can serve their community, as I will argue in the next section. Thus, since there seem to be no good reasons to deny Ivory the expertise he has acquired through years of intense work, we can conclude that the willingness to manifest secondary competence is not a necessary condition for one to possess expertise.

Two allegedly key ingredients in Quast’s account of expertise, namely secondary competence and the willingness to manifest that competence when appropriate, are less fundamental than one might have initially thought. In fact, they should not be considered necessary requirements for one to be an expert in some domain. In the final section, I shall explore some implications of the considerations offered so far, with the aim of contributing to reaching a better understanding of the notion of, and the role of, an expert in the context of the society we currently live in.

Expertise Today: Toward an Objective Approach

Many reputable scholars characterize the age we live in as a post-truth era (Fuller 2018) in which the very idea of expertise is dead (Nichols 2017), as it has been replaced by a free market in information and self-attributed competences that takes place in the blogosphere (Coady 2012), the internet (Lynch 2016), and more recently social media, where fake news easily proliferates (Vosoughi et al. 2018). As Nichols thoroughly describes (see §7), we’re surrounded by a gigantic amount of news and by experts who are more and more specialized in any domain, and yet we know less than before and distrust expertise.

If there is one thing epistemologists can surely do—in fact, must do—to counteract the advance of post-truth thinking in our society, it is attempting to reach a better understanding of the notion of expertise. Such a service would not solve all the problems, yet it would at least contribute to indicating where genuine competence lies and who has it and therefore to marking a neater distinction between experts and charlatans. This is why I am largely sympathetic to Quast’s efforts, as it is clear that we need experts now more than ever.

It is for the same reasons, though, that I believe Quast’s balanced account of expertise is on the wrong track. In this final section, I make two points to suggest how we should redirect our search for a better account of expertise. First, I explain why we need a more objective account of expertise. Second, I suggest an alternative way to look at the service experts are supposed to fulfill in our communities.

The first consideration is called for by the peculiar situation we’re currently in. As I showed in §1, the functionalist spirit of the balanced account of expertise ends up undermining the very notion of objective expertise that Goldman has in mind when he argues that “being an expert is not simply a matter of veritistic superiority to most of the community. Some non-comparative threshold of veritistic attainment must be reached” (2001, 91).

Since Goldman admits that it might be difficult to determine where the bar has to be set, one might suspect the balanced account has a clear advantage over a purely objective approach to expertise, as on Quast’s view being suitably disposed and willing to serve the need of a relevant contrast class is all it takes for one to achieve the status of an expert.

This is a mistake though because it is far from obvious that a novice or group of novices can reliably ascribe expertise to someone who is supposed to be more competent than they are in a domain. In other words, the more context sensitive and subject sensitive is the process of expertise attribution, the higher is the risk of misplacing trust in non-experts. This is an unwelcome consequence of the balanced account—a consequence that makes the account lose its alleged positional advantage over objective approaches to expertise.

Against the Balanced Account

My proposed epistemic consideration against the balanced account of expertise can be supported by a further reason for favoring an objective account of expertise—namely, the fact that this latter account provides a community with robust criteria for assessing who is to be trusted to deliver a service in any field. This translates into a practical advantage for the entire community, which can create ways to signal who and where experts are[3] and therefore help lay members navigate the current ocean of self-attributed competences and epistemic egalitarian ideals. Needless to say, this consideration does not suffice as a remedy against the detrimental effects of post-truth thinking; yet it should at least offer motivation for directing our efforts toward an objective approach to expertise rather than a “balanced” one.

The second consideration brings the distinction between primary and secondary competence back on stage. In a realist, or objective, approach, the attribution of expertise cannot depend on the specific function one is required to fulfill relative to some contrast class in a particular context. Some handy craftsperson who has learned how to repair the very same leaky drain pipe at one’s home over the years does not count as an expert, because their competence is too limited and unreliable in similar situations in which a proficient plumber is expected to succeed.

Yet, an objective account is in a position to distinguish at least two broad kinds of expertise, namely the expertise of those who can reliably provide some sort of service in a domain and those who can explain what’s going on in a domain to others, especially laypeople. Call the former domain-oriented expertise and the latter novice-oriented expertise.

The set of domain-oriented experts includes reliable plumbers, scuba divers, wine tasters, lawyers, doctors, musicians, and scholars, among others. Their expertise consists of an ability to serve the needs of a community in their respective domains—that is, what Quast calls primary competence. In particular, the function of domain-oriented experts encompasses two main roles:

(i) that of expert practitioners, who address specific needs of the community members—for example, repairing leaky drain pipes, maintaining or restoring health, and performing jazz music; and

(ii) that of expert innovators, whose job is to improve the community’s capacity to serve the needs of their members by developing new resources, advancing the techniques, or carrying out groundbreaking research in a domain—for example, creating more-robust drain pipes, developing new therapies against cancer, or composing jazz music.

As should be evident, both functions demand that the subject have intellectual or practical dispositions to reliably deliver the required services. However, these roles are quite different, and not all expert practitioners are also expert innovators, and vice versa. Thus, any individual who fulfills either role possesses domain-oriented expertise.

In contrast, the set of novice-oriented experts includes those individuals who have secondary competence, namely the capacity to help laypeople understand the services domain-oriented experts provide to the community. This set typically includes teachers and science popularizers, but all domain-oriented experts who possess a sufficient amount of secondary competence may have novice-oriented expertise too.

However, possessing domain-oriented expertise does not ensure that one also has novice-oriented expertise, as the wine-consultant and civil-engineer cases discussed in §2 demonstrate. For this service activates a different set of dispositions—namely, novice-oriented abilities, which are not strictly necessary for one to possess domain-oriented expertise.

Conclusion

The proposed categorization of the two main services experts fulfill in a community allows us to take into due consideration the functionalist element of expertise without giving up on an objective perspective that grants conceptual primacy to the dispositional component of expertise. We all wish to be surrounded by subjects who can offer clear explanations of how they are going to satisfy our needs, but we’d better also have an account that explains why some experts greatly serve the domain-oriented needs of our community without being able to serve the novice-oriented ones.

This is not only important for us to improve the explanatory power of our definition of expertise, but also for a community to evaluate how to deploy its resources to ensure that both kinds of experts are in a suitable position to fulfill their respective service function.

This reply to Quast’s insightful paper aimed at shedding light on some limits of his account and sketching a strategy to accept Quast’s suggestions about the necessary balance between a dispositional dimension and a functionalist dimension of expertise within an objective approach. Far from offering a comprehensive alternative account, I hope this reply can encourage others to address the important issues Quast has raised in his paper and can contribute to improving our understanding of the notion of expertise.

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] These virtues are part of what I have elsewhere called novice-oriented abilities (see Croce 2019, 13).

[2] For the sake of completeness, it should also be noted that other intellectual virtues may be required for one to possess primary competence in a domain, especially in those fields in which competence involves some propositional knowledge and understanding. In particular, I have in mind virtues such as thoroughness, intellectual perseverance, creativity, open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, and autonomy (see Croce 2019, 18).

[3] As Goldman points out, this is the role of academic certifications, professional accreditations, work experiences, and so on (2001, 97).

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

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

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

Image by Bill Kerr via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

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

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

Against a Balanced Account of Expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dispositions and Functions in Tension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems of Balance in Expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Rik Peels, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, mail@rikpeels.nl.

Peels, Rik. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 10-18.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-456

From the Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto.
Image by Loozrboy via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

Nadja El Kassar is right that different fields in philosophy use rather different conceptions of ignorance. I also agree with her that there seem to be three major conceptions of ignorance: (i) ignorance as propositional ignorance, which she calls the ‘propositional conception of ignorance’, (ii) ignorance as actively upheld false outlooks, which she names the ‘agential conception of ignorance’, and (iii) ignorance as an epistemic practice, which she dubs the ‘structural conception of ignorance’.

It is remarkable that nobody else has addressed the question before of how these three conceptions relate to each other. I consider it a great virtue of her lucid essay that she not only considers this question in detail, but also provides an account that is meant to do justice to all these different conceptions of ignorance. Let us call her account the El Kassar Synthesis. It reads as follows:

Ignorance is 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).[1]

My reply to her insightful paper is structured as follows. First, I argue that her synthesis needs revision on various important points (§2). After that, I show that, despite her ambition to capture the main varieties of ignorance in her account, there are important kinds of ignorance that the El Kassar Synthesis leaves out (§4).

I then consider the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance and suggest that we should distinguish between the nature of ignorance and its accidental features. I also argue that these two other conceptions of ignorance are best understood as accounts of important accidental features of ignorance (§5). I sketch and reply to four objections that one might level against my account of the nature and accidental features of ignorance (§6).

I conclude that ignorance should be understood as the absence of propositional knowledge or the absence of true belief, the absence of objectual knowledge, or the absence of procedural knowledge. I also conclude that epistemic vices, hermeneutical frameworks, intentional avoidance of evidence, and other important phenomena that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance draw our attention to, are best understood as important accidental features of ignorance, not as properties that are essential to ignorance.

Preliminaries

Before I explore the tenability of the El Kassar Synthesis in more detail, I would like to make a few preliminary points about it that call for some fine-tuning on her part. Remember that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance should be understood as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 1: Ignorance is 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).[2]

It seems to me that this synthesis needs revision on at least three points.

First, a false belief is an epistemic attitude and even a doxastic attitude. Moreover, if – as is widely thought among philosophers – there are exactly three doxastic attitudes, namely belief, disbelief, and suspension of judgment, then any case of ignorance that manifests itself in a doxastic attitude is one in which one lacks a belief about p or one has a false belief about p.

After all, if one holds a false belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitude, it is because one holds a false belief (that is the manifestation). If one holds no belief and that is manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes, it is because one suspends judgment (that is the manifestation). Of course, it is also possible that one is deeply ignorant (e.g, one cannot even consider the proposition), but then it is simply not even manifest in one’s doxastic attitudes.

The reference to doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct is, therefore, redundant. The revised El Kassar Synthesis reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 2: Ignorance is 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 (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices).

What is left in the second conjunct after the first revision is epistemic virtues and vices. There is a problem with this, though. Ignorance need not be manifested in any epistemic virtues or vices. True, it happens often enough. But it is not necessary; it does not belong to the essence of being ignorant.

If one is ignorant of the fact that Antarctica is the greatest desert on earth (which is actually a fact), then that may simply be a fairly cognitively isolated, single fact of which one is ignorant. Nothing follows about such substantial cognitive phenomena as intellectual virtues and vices (which are, after all, dispositions) like open-mindedness or dogmatism. A version that takes this point into account reads as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 3: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs: either she has no belief about p or a false belief.

A third and final worry I would like to raise here is that on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs—and, as we saw, on versions 1 and 2, in her intellectual character traits (epistemic virtues, epistemic vices). I find this worrisome, because it is widely accepted that virtues and vices are dispositions themselves, and many philosophers have argued this also holds for beliefs.[3]

If so, on the El Kassar Synthesis, ignorance is a disposition that manifests itself in a number of dispositions (beliefs, lack of beliefs, virtues, vices). What sort of thing is ignorance if it is a disposition to manifest certain dispositions? It seems if one is disposed to manifest certain dispositions, one simply has those dispositions and will, therefore, manifest them in the relevant circumstances.

Moreover, virtue or the manifestation of virtue does not seem to be an instance or exemplification of ignorance; at most, this seems to be the case for vices. Open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual perseverance are clearly not manifestations of ignorance.[4] If anything, they are the opposite: manifestations of knowledge, insight, and understanding. An account that takes these points also into account would therefore look as follows:

El Kassar Synthesis version 4: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s having no belief or a false belief about p.

It seems to me that version 4 is significantly more plausible than version 1. I realize, though, that it is also a significant revision of the original El Kassar Synthesis. My criticisms in what follows will, therefore, also be directed against version 1 of El Kassar’s synthesis.

Propositional, Objectual, and Procedural Ignorance

On the first conception of ignorance that El Kassar explores, the propositional one, ignorance is ignorance of the truth of a proposition. On the Standard View of ignorance, defended by Pierre Le Morvan and others,[5] ignorance is lack of propositional knowledge, whereas on the New View, championed by me and others,[6] ignorance is lack of true belief.

I would like to add that it may more suitable to call these ‘conceptions of propositional ignorance’ rather than ‘positional conceptions of ignorance’. After all, they are explicitly concerned with and limit themselves to situations in which one is ignorant of the truth of one or more propositions; they do not say that all ignorance is ignorance of a proposition.

More importantly, though, we should note that ever since Bertrand Russell, it has been quite common in epistemology to distinguish not only propositional knowledge (or knowledge-that), but also knowledge by acquaintance or objectual knowledge (knowledge-of) and procedural or technical knowledge (knowledge-how).[7]

Examples of knowledge by acquaintance are my knowledge of my fiancée’s lovely personality, my knowledge of the taste of the Scotch whisky Talisker Storm, my knowledge of Southern France, and my knowledge of the smell of fresh raspberries. Examples of technical or procedural knowledge are my knowledge of how to navigate through Amsterdam by bike, my knowledge of how to catch a North Sea cod, my knowledge of how to get the attention of a group of 150 students (the latter, incidentally, suggests that know-how comes in degrees…).

Since ignorance is often taken to be lack of knowledge, it is only natural to consider whether there can also be objectual and technical ignorance. Nikolaj Nottelmann, in a recent piece, has convincingly argued that there are such varieties of ignorance.[8]

The rub is that the El Kassar Synthesis, on all of its four versions, does not capture these two other varieties of ignorance. If one is ignorant of how to ride a bike, it is not so much that one lacks beliefs about p or that one has false beliefs about p (even if it is clear exactly which proposition p is). Also, not knowing how to ride a bike does not seem to come with certain intellectual virtues or vices.

The same is true for objectual ignorance: if I am not familiar with the smell of fresh raspberries, that does not imply any false beliefs or absence of beliefs, nor does it come with intellectual virtues or vices. Objectual and procedural ignorance seem to be sui generis kinds of ignorance.

The following definition does capture these three varieties of ignorance—one that, for obvious reasons, I will call the ‘threefold synthesis’:

Threefold Synthesis: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s lack of propositional knowledge or lack of true belief, lack of objectual knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.[9]

Of course, each of the four versions of the El Kassar Synthesis could be revised so as to accommodate this. As we shall see below, though, we have good reason to formulate the Threefold Synthesis independently from the El Kassar Synthesis.

The Agential and Structural Conceptions of Ignorance

According to El Kassar, there is a second conception of ignorance, not captured in the conception of propositional ignorance but captured in the conception of agential ignorance, namely ignorance as an actively upheld false outlook. This conception has, understandably, been particularly influential in the epistemology of race. Charles Mills, whose contributions to this field have been seminal, defines such ignorance as the absence of beliefs, false belief, or a set of false beliefs, brought about by various factors, such as people’s whiteness in the case of white people, that leads to a variety of behavior, such as avoiding evidence.[10] El Kassar suggests that José Medina, who has also contributed much to this field, defends a conception along these lines as well.[11]

The way Charles Mills phrases things suggests a natural interpretation of such ignorance, though. It is this: ignorance is the lack of belief, false beliefs, or various false beliefs (all captured by the conception of propositional ignorance), brought about or caused by a variety of factors. What these factors are will differ from case to case: people’s whiteness, people’s social power and status, people’s being Western, people’s being male, and people’s being heterosexual.

But this means that the agential conception is not a conception of the nature of ignorance. It grants the nature of ignorance as conceived of by the conception of propositional ignorance spelled out above and then, for obvious reasons, goes on to focus on those cases in which such ignorance has particular causes, namely the kinds of factors I just mentioned.[12]

Remarkably, much of what El Kassar herself says supports this interpretation. For example, she says: “Medina picks out a kind of ignorance, active ignorance, that is fed by epistemic vices – in particular, arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness.” (p. 3; italics are mine) This seems entirely right to me: the epistemology of race focuses on ignorance with specific, contingent features that are crucially relevant for the debate in that field: (i) it is actively upheld, (ii) it is often, but not always, disbelieving ignorance, (iii) it is fed by epistemic vices, etc.

This is of course all perfectly compatible with the Standard or New Views on Ignorance. Most people’s ignorance of the fact that Antarctica is the largest desert on earth is a clear case of ignorance, but one that is not at all relevant to the epistemology of race.

Unsurprisingly then, even though it clearly is a case of ignorance, it does not meet any of the other, contingent criteria that are so pivotal in critical race theory: (i) it is not actively upheld, (ii) it is deep ignorance rather than disbelieving ignorance (most people have never considered this statement about Antarctica), (iii) it is normally not in any way fed by epistemic vices, such as closed-mindedness, laziness, intellectual arrogance, or dogmatism.

That this is a more plausible way of understanding the nature of ignorance and its accidental features can be seen by considering what is widely regarded as the opposite of ignorance: knowledge. According to most philosophers, to know a particular proposition p is to believe a true proposition p on the basis of some kind of justification in a non-lucky (in some sense of the word) way. That is what it is to know something, that is the nature of knowledge.

But in various cases, knowledge can have all sorts of accidental properties: it can be sought and found or one can stumble upon it, it may be the result of the exercise of intellectual virtue or it may be pretty much automatic (such as in the case of my knowledge that I exist), it may be morally good to know that thing or it may be morally bad (as in the case of a privacy violation), it may be based primarily on the exercise of one’s own cognitive capacities or primarily on those of other people (in some cases of testimony), and so on. If this is the case, then it is only natural to think that the same applies to the opposite of knowledge, namely ignorance, and that we should, therefore, clearly distinguish between its nature and its accidental (sometimes crucially important) features:

The nature of ignorance

Ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge / the lack of true belief, or the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge.[13]

Accidental, context-dependent features of ignorance

Willful or unintentional;

Individual or collective;

Small-scale (individual propositions) or large-scale (whole themes, topics, areas of life);

Brought about by external factors, such as the government, institutions, or socially accepted frameworks, or internal factors, such as one’s own intellectual vices, background assumptions, or hermeneutic paradigms;

And so on.

According to El Kassar, an advantage of her position is that it tells us how one is ignorant (p. 7). However, an account of, say, knowledge, also need not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something.[14] Perceptual knowledge is crucially important in our lives, and so is knowledge based on memory, moral knowledge (if there is such a thing), and so on.

It is surely no defect in all the many accounts of knowledge, such as externalism, internalism, reliabilism, internalist externalism, proper functionalism, deontologism, or even knowledge-first epistemology, that they do not tell us how a particular person in specific circumstances knows something. They were never meant to do that.

Clearly, mutatis mutandis, the same point applies to the structural conception of ignorance that plays an important role in agnotology. Agnotology is the field that studies how various institutional structures and mechanisms can intentionally keep people ignorant or make them ignorant or create different kinds of doubt. The ignorance about the effects of smoking brought about and intentionally maintained by the tobacco industry is a well-known example.

Again, the natural interpretation is to say that people are ignorant because they lack propositional knowledge or true belief, they lack objectual knowledge, or they lack procedural knowledge. And they do so because – and this is what agnotology focuses on – it is intentionally brought about or maintained by various institutions, agencies, governments, mechanisms, and so on. Understandably, the field is more interested in studying those accidental features of ignorance than in studying its nature.

Objections and Replies

Before we draw a conclusion, let us consider El Kassar’s objections to a position along the lines I have suggested.[15] First, she suggests that we lose a lot if we reject the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance. We lose such things as: ignorance as a bad practice, the role of epistemic agency, the fact that much ignorance is strategic, and so on. I reply that, fortunately, we do not: those are highly important, but contingent features of ignorance: some cases of ignorance have them, others do not. This leaves plenty of room to study such contingent features of ignorance in critical race theory and agnotology.[16]

Second, she suggests that this account would exclude highly important kinds of ignorance, such as ignorance deliberately constructed by companies. I reply that it does not: it just says that its being deliberately constructed by, say, pharmaceutical companies, is an accidental or contingent feature and that it is not part of the nature of ignorance.

Third, Roget’s Thesaurus, for example, lists knowledge as only one of the antonyms of ignorance. Other options are cognizance, understanding, competence, cultivation, education, experience, intelligence, literacy, talent, and wisdom. I reply that we can make sense of this on my alternative, threefold synthesis: competence, cultivation, education, intelligence, and so on, all come with knowledge and true belief and remove certain kinds of ignorance. Thus, it makes perfect sense that these are mentioned as antonyms of ignorance.

Finally, one may wonder whether my alternative conception enables us to distinguish between Hannah and Kate, as described by El Kassar. Hannah is deeply and willingly ignorant about the high emissions of both carbon and sulfur dioxides of cruise ships (I recently found out that a single cruise trip has roughly the same amount of emission as seven million cars in an average year combined). Kate is much more open-minded, but has simply never considered the issue in any detail.

She is in a state of suspending ignorance regarding the emission of cruise ships. I reply that they are both ignorant, at least propositionally ignorant, but that their ignorance has different, contingent features: Hannah’s ignorance is deep ignorance, Kate’s ignorance is suspending ignorance, Hannah’s ignorance is willing or intentional, Kate’s ignorance is not. These are among the contingent features of ignorance; both are ignorant and, therefore, meet the criteria that I laid out for the nature of ignorance.

The Nature and Accidental Features of Ignorance

I conclude that ignorance is the lack of propositional knowledge or true belief, the lack of objectual knowledge, or the lack of procedural knowledge. That is the nature of ignorance: each case meets this threefold disjunctive criterion. I also conclude that ignorance has a wide variety of accidental or contingent features. Various fields have drawn attention to these accidental or contingent features because they matter crucially in certain debates in those fields. It is not surprising then that the focus in mainstream epistemology is on the nature of ignorance, whereas the focus in agnotology, epistemology of race, feminist epistemology, and various other debates is on those context-dependent features of ignorance.

This is not at all to say that the nature of ignorance is more important than its accidental features. Contingent, context-dependent features of something may be significantly more important. For example, it may well be the case that we have the parents that we have essentially; that we would be someone else if we had different biological parents. If so, that is part of our nature or essence.

And yet, certain contingent and accidental features may matter more to us, such as whether or not our partner loves us. Let us not confuse the nature of something with the accidental features of it that we value or disvalue. If we get this distinction straight, there is no principled reason not to accept the threefold synthesis that I have suggested in this paper as a plausible alternative to El Kassar’s synthesis.[17]

Contact details: mail@rikpeels.nl

References

Driver, Julia. (1989). “The Virtues of Ignorance,” The Journal of Philosophy 86.7, 373-384.

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

Le Morvan, Pierre. (2011). “On Ignorance: A Reply to Peels”, Philosophia 39.2, 335-344.

Medina, José. (2013). The Epistemology of Resistance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mills, Charles. (2015). “Global White Ignorance”, in M. Gross and L. McGoey (eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (London: Routledge), 217-227.

Nottelmann, Nikolaj. (2015). “Ignorance”, in Robert Audi (ed.), Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Peels, Rik. (2010). “What Is Ignorance?”, Philosophia 38, 57-67.

Peels, Rik. (2014). “What Kind of Ignorance Excuses? Two Neglected Issues”, The Philosophical Quarterly 64 (256), 478–496.

Peels, Rik, ed. 2017. Perspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (New York: Routledge).

Peels, Rik. (2019). “Asserting Ignorance”, in Sanford C. Goldberg (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Assertion (Oxford: Oxford University Press), forthcoming.

Peels, Rik, and Martijn Blaauw, eds. (2016). The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Russell, Bertrand. (1980). The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Schwitzgebel, Eric. (2002). “A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief”, Noûs 36.2, 249-275.

[1] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[2] El Kassar 2018, 7.

[3] E.g. Schwitzgebel 2002.

[4] Julia driver (1989) has argued that certain moral virtues, such as modesty, imply some kind of ignorance. However, moral virtues are different from epistemic virtues and the suggestion that something implies ignorance is different from the idea that something manifests ignorance.

[5] See Le Morvan 2011. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[6] See Peels 2010; 2014; 2019. See also various essays in Peels and Blaauw 2016; Peels 2017.

[7] See Russell 1980, 3.

[8] See Nottelmann 2015.

[9] If the Standard View on Ignorance is correct, then one could simply replace this with: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in lack of (propositional, objectual, or procedural) knowledge.

[10] See Mills 2015, 217.

[11] See Medina 2013.

[12] El Kassar in her paper mentions Anne Meylan’s suggestion on this point. Anne Meylan has suggested – and confirmed to me in personal correspondence – that we ought to distinguish between the state of being ignorant (which is nicely captured by the Standard View or the New View) and the action or failure to act that induced that state of ignorance (that the agential and structural conceptions of ignorance refer to), such as absence of inquiry or a sloppy way of dealing with evidence. I fully agree with Anne Meylan’s distinction on this point and, as I argue in more detail below, taking this distinction into account can lead to a significantly improved account of ignorance.

[13] The disjunction is meant to be inclusive.

[15] See pp. 4-5 of her paper.

[16] As Anne Meylan has pointed out to me in correspondence, it is generally true that doxastic states are not as such morally bad; whether or not they are depends on their contingent, extrinsic features.

[17] For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I would like to thank Thirza Lagewaard, Anne Meylan, and Nadja El Kassar.

Author Information: Dwight Holbrook, University of Adam Mickiewicz, hdwight10021@yahoo.com

Holbrook, Dwight. “What is an Object?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 11 (2014): 35-38.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1HH

Please refer to:

non-formImage credit: Tiemen Rapati, via flickr

I offer the following response to Jesse Butler’s critique “Knowledge and the NOW: What Is the Epistemic Standing of the Present Moment?” (2014) his paper being a review and reply to my essay “Is Present Time a Precondition for the Existence of the Public and Material World?” published in Social Epistemology.

First, I want to commend the acuity of thought and analysis in Butler’s review. My response will focus on his two points of disagreement, the first of which figures essentially as a call for clarification and epistemic distinction, a suggestion well articulated and well founded to which I raise only a tangential concern. With regard to his second point of contention, I have rather substantive reservations that I express below.  Continue Reading…