Book Discussion of Christopher Norris’ “Epistemology: Key Concepts in Philosophy”
Chapter 5: Making for Truth: Some Problems with Virtue-Based Epistemology –
Virtue-based epistemology “has partly grown out of, and partly emerged as a reaction against, the kinds of reliabilist argument put forward by philosophers and cognitive theorists like Alvin Goldman.” They feel the way around the old quandaries, including Gettier’s, “is to adopt a basically causal account whereby knowledge is taken to consist in beliefs arrived at through a process of cognitive enquiry which puts the knower reliably in touch with his or her information sources. This is clearly an externalist approach in so far as it aims to cut out any normative appeal to whatever is supposed to go on ‘in the minds’ of properly equipped, duly qualified or intellectually responsible seekers-after-truth. …in marked opposition to any version of the hitherto dominant theory, from Plato to Kant and beyond, that would supply epistemology with a normative dimension.” They just stand in a ‘direct causal relation to their various sources of evidence’.
Virtue theorists like reliabilists’ anti-deontological approach, but dislike the causal theory of knowledge “that left no room for any but a notional (reductionist and under-specified) account of those normative values which had to play a role in the assessment of our various epistemic practices.” So Goldman’s approach is open to the same objections as Quine’s hard-line physicalist programme. Goldman answers with “process reliabilism” which he suggests can be regarded as a virtue-oriented approach.
But there are problems with reconciling causal theory and virtue theory—like the fact/value distinction. McDowell replies with his Kantian “responsible freedom” (spontaneity tempered by receptivity)…but Norris says this still falls back on the old dualism.
Virtue-theorists like Ernest Sosa, who start from a reliabilist position but became dissatisfied with its lack of normative component, claim to end the dispute between foundationalists and anti-foundationalists. Sosa compares animal knowledge and human knowledge to show that what is considered reliable for an animal, is not considered reliable for humans. There is more to human knowledge, and that “more” is the distinctly human epistemic virtues, internalist constraints.
On the animal-human comparison, McDowell thinks of spontaneity as the human element exempting us from and structuring the ‘receptivity’ element we share with ordinary animals. Spontaneity is specialized receptivity. But this contradicts McDowell’s earlier de-transcendentalizing or naturalized reading of Kant.
Sosa’s argument therefore has the same problem, and so they are both on a seesaw.