What is Virtue Epistemology?

What is Virtue Epistemology?

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What is Virtue Epistemology?

This paper functions as a brief introduction to virtue epistemology, a topic that has enjoyed a recent gain in popularity among analytic philosophers. Here I maintain that the defining feature of virtue epistemology is its focus on the intellectual virtues and vices rather than the evaluation of belief. What constitutes such a focus? And, what are the intellectual virtues? In the first section, I enumerate five different ways in which virtue epistemologists might focus on the virtues. In the second, I discuss four topics pertaining to the nature of the intellectual virtues themselves: (1) are the virtues natural or acquired?; (2) are they skills?; (3) are they instrumentally, constitutively, or intrinsically valuable?; and (4) what relation do they bear to truth? Throughout the paper, I identify which virtue epistemologists are partial to which views, and in this manner, catalog much of the recent debate. In conclusion, I suggest some topics for future study.

I have no answer to these arguments, but am finally compelled to admit that there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised; and this is not a flippant or ill-considered conclusion, but is based on powerful and well thought-out reasons. So in future I must withhold my assent from these former beliefs just as carefully as I would from obvious falsehoods, if I want to discover any certainty. — Rene Descartes (1)

Much of contemporary analytic epistemology is still steeped in a vigorous form of Cartesianism. Granted, there are some analytic epistemologists who have denied Descartes' foundationalism, and others who, in preserving foundationalism, have rejected the infallibility of foundational beliefs. Still others have attacked his internalism, doubted the seriousness of the threat of skepticism, or attempted to eradicate the abstract, isolated "I" of the Meditations. But, despite this seemingly comprehensive critique of Cartesianism, one of its essential elements has escaped widespread criticism and currently operates as a background assumption in much of contemporary epistemology. This element is the basic Cartesian framework itself, which dictates the primary objects of epistemic evaluation, and in so doing, directs the course of epistemological inquiry. As indicated by the passage above, Cartesian systems focus on the evaluation of beliefs or propositions believed. A perfunctory survey of current epistemological theory will confirm its focus on the evaluation of beliefs. For, even those who reject other facets of the Cartesian program routinely concentrate on justification and knowledge.

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But, virtue epistemologists do not.

They intend to oust the basic Cartesian framework, and shift the focus of evaluation to the intellectual character traits of the agent. Thus, Code announces her intention to alter ."..the emphasis of investigation and evaluation so that knowers, or would-be knowers, come to bear as much of the onus of credibility as "the known" has standardly borne." (2) The defining feature of virtue epistemology is its focus on the intellectual virtues and vices instead of justification, knowledge, or any other evaluation of belief. (3) But, what sort of focus is this? And, what are the intellectual virtues and vices? There has been little agreement about these topics. Here, I enumerate several competing answers to these questions, and, in so doing, catalog some of the recent debate. In this manner, I hope to illustrate the diversity of views within virtue epistemology. In the concluding section, I make some recommendations for future discussions.


In what way does virtue epistemology focus on the intellectual virtues and vices? As I see it, there are four plausible candidates. They are, what I will call, a conceptual focus, an ontological focus, a focus on the virtues as mere indicators of the evaluative status of beliefs, and, finally, (the default position) a focus on the virtues as the protagonists of one's philosophical works. I will briefly describe each of these foci, in turn. Few self-proclaimed virtue epistemologists have acknowledged that there is more than one way to focus on the virtues. (4) Consequently, few have identified themselves to be interested in one sort of focus rather than another. In an attempt to breach this lacuna, I will make some suggestions about which of our virtue epistemologists are partial to which foci. For brevity's sake, I have elected justified belief and knowledge to represent all of the various forms of belief evaluation that are of epistemological import. (5)

The first candidate for discussion is the conceptual focus. To establish a conceptual focus on the intellectual virtues, one must maintain that the concepts of justified belief and/or knowledge are dependent upon virtue concepts which are not, themselves, dependent upon the concepts of justified belief or knowledge. This semantic dependency admits of stronger and weaker variations. At the upper limit, both the concept of justified belief and the concept of knowledge will be defined solely in terms of virtue concepts, and no virtue concepts will be even partly defined in terms of the concepts of justified belief or knowledge. (In other words, the concepts of knowledge and justification will be reduced to virtue concepts.) At the lower limit, either the concept of justified belief, or the concept of knowledge (or some derivative thereof) will be defined partly in terms of virtue notions; and most, but not all, virtue notions will have avoided definition in terms of the concepts of justification or knowledge. In this manner, the concept of an intellectual virtue will be more fundamental than concepts concerned with belief evaluation.

Most self-proclaimed virtue epistemologists are interested in some form of conceptual focus on the virtues. In Virtues of the Mind, Zagzebski announces her intention to construct a "pure virtue epistemology" in which the notions of knowledge and justified belief are analyzed solely in terms of virtue notions. (6) In her theory, the concept of justified belief is defined in terms of the concept of a person who is motivated by intellectual virtue, (7) while the concept of knowledge is defined in terms of that of an act of intellectual virtue. (8) Others have adopted weaker forms of conceptual foci in which only one of these concepts, or some derivative thereof, has been reduced to virtue concepts. Thus, Sosa's concept of animal knowledge, Goldman's concept of justified belief, and Montmarquet's concept of subjective justification are all analyzed in terms of virtue notions. (9) Hookway, Braaten, and Plantinga have also pursued conceptual foci on the virtues. Hookway defines the ever-popular concept of justified belief, while Braaten takes on the notion of intelligence, and Plantinga analyses of the concept of epistemic warrant. (10) (Plantinga is not self-proclaimed, but has been outed by Greco.)

The ontological focus appears to rate second in popularity. To establish such a focus, one must explain the nature of justification and/or knowledge in terms of the virtues, without explaining the nature of the virtues in terms of justification or knowledge. Here, justified belief and knowledge themselves, rather than our concepts of them, are explained. And, the virtues themselves do the explaining. To uphold such a focus, one must agree that most beliefs are made justified, or made to count as bits of knowledge, by some particular relation they bear to the virtues or the virtuous. Additionally, one must deny that most character traits are made virtuous by some relation they bear to justified beliefs or knowledge. In short, the properties of justification and knowledge are reduced to virtue properties. Like their conceptual brethren, ontological foci come in varying strengths. At the upper limit, all justified beliefs and bits of knowledge will be explained solely in terms of the virtues and the virtuous; and no virtues will be even partly explained in terms of justified beliefs or knowledge. At the lower limit, most justified beliefs, or most bits of knowledge, will be at least partly explained in terms of the virtues or the virtuous; and most of the virtues will have avoided explanation in terms of justified belief or knowledge.

Several virtue epistemologists establish both conceptual and ontological foci on the virtues. For Sosa, the exercise of one's virtues makes one's beliefs internally apt, and makes them count as bits of animal knowledge. (11) On his view, one's belief that P constitutes animal knowledge because one believes P out of intellectual virtue V (C, F). (12) According to Zagzebski, the property of knowledge is the property of being a belief that results from an act of intellectual virtue. (13) And, for Greco and Plantinga, the property of warrant is the property of being produced by a properly functioning cognitive faculty, or some permutation thereof. (14)

Defining knowledge in terms of the virtues may well change the face of knowledge. If the virtues have motivational or social components, perceptual knowledge will cease to be paradigmatic. More complex cases of knowing will supplant it.

Third, one might establish a focus on the virtues as indicators of justified belief or knowledge, while denying that they are what make beliefs justified or count as bits of knowledge. According to Zagzebski, ethical theories of this ilk "focus on the agent and her traits as a way of determining what is right but do not maintain that what is right is right because it is what a virtuous person would do..." (15) Analogously, the fact that a virtuous person would believe P in similar circumstances might make it likely that S's belief that P is justified without actually making S's belief justified (contra Zagzebski). Perhaps, what makes a belief justified is its being based on adequate grounds, and virtuous people routinely base their beliefs on adequate grounds. Goldman appears to establish such a focus in "Epistemic Folkways and Scientific Epistemology," though he may do so unintentionally. On his scheme, an epistemic evaluator classifies beliefs as justified, unjustified, or non-justified, by: (1) considering which processes produced those beliefs; and (2) matching those processes against her list of virtues and vices. (16) Though the judgment of this evaluator is an indicator of the justificatory status of the belief, it does not, itself, make the belief justified. (17)

Finally, the virtues might be protagonists in one's philosophical works even though one is not interested in constructing a virtue theory, per se. According to Rawls, moral theories systematically enumerate and explain the connections between (the notions of) the right, the good and the virtuous. (18) In epistemology, a virtue theory is a systematic account of the relationships between belief evaluations, and the virtues and vices and that which is good from an epistemic point of view, that establishes the primacy of the virtues. (19) The four previous foci operate within virtue theories. But, some epistemologists make the virtues the protagonists of their works even though they have no use for epistemological theory. Thus, Code believes that understanding the intellectual virtues is crucial for expanding our grasp of the human cognitive experience and for promoting our efforts to be "epistemically responsible" knowers. But, she maintains that one cannot offer any "easy calculus," or systematized theory, for assessing knowledge and justified belief in terms of the virtues. According to Code, we cannot "...provide a decision-making scale against which specific knowledge claims can be measured for validity." (20) Indeed, we cannot provide "...any definite and final answers." (21) Likewise, Kvanvig believes that the virtues are important for beings who need socialization in order to function successfully in an information-sharing society. On his view, knowledge and justified belief cannot be reduced to the virtues, nor can they be reduced to knowledge or justified belief. (22) Instead, they compose an independent part of "the cognitive ideal." (23)


Now that we have some idea as to what sorts of foci virtue epistemologists are interested in, we can briefly examine the nature of the intellectual virtues. I will concentrate on four different topics: (1) are the virtues natural or acquired?; (2) are they skills?; (3) are they instrumentally, constitutively, or intrinsically valuable?; and (4) what relation do they bear to truth?

Most of our philosophers agree that the virtues are excellences of the agent. But, while some argue that the intellectual virtues are acquired excellences, others maintain that they are natural or innate. Sosa, Greco, and Goldman are all in the latter camp. (24) They claim that sight, hearing, introspection, memory, deduction, and induction are paradigms of intellectual virtue. Zagzebski vehemently disagrees. She believes that we are often responsible for our virtues, and that we cannot be responsible for natural capacities. On her view, virtues are deep qualities of a person that deserve praise for their presence, and blame for their absence. Zagzebski believes that although we may praise a person for her natural capacities, we would not blame her for lacking those capacities. (25) Some paradigms of Zagzebskian virtue are: open-mindedness; sensitivity to detail; intellectual courage; and intellectual humility.

Disagreement over this issue has produced a serious, and in my opinion, unnecessary rift in virtue epistemology. (26) The discrepancy between Zagzebskian and Sosean virtues is so pronounced that their projects may seem to have little, or nothing, in common. I suspect that each will eventually recognize a need to incorporate the sort of virtues favored by the other. Sosean virtues will help Zagzebski explain low-grade (perceptual) knowledge, and Zagzebskian virtues will aid Sosa in explaining more sophisticated competences, like those associated with reflective knowledge. (27)

The rift between Zagzebski's and Sosa's views is exacerbated by their disagreement over whether the virtues are skills. Sosa routinely refers to the virtues as 'skills', 'abilities', 'faculties', and 'powers', as do Plantinga, Greco, and Goldman. (28) But, skills are not habits. While skills need not be exercised, habits will not exist unless they are exercised on the appropriate occasions. In Alston's words, a habit is concerned with "what one would do under certain conditions" while skills are concerned with "what one is able to do." (29) So, if the virtues are habits, they are not skills. Zagzebski enumerates several additional reasons for thinking that virtues and skills are distinct. Like Aristotle, she believes that an act exhibits a skill when one has the knowledge associated with that skill, and performs the act in accordance with that knowledge. To illustrate, an act in accordance with the laws of grammar exhibits the skill of the grammarian when it is performed on the basis of grammatical knowledge. But, for an act to exhibit a virtue, it must also proceed from an enduring character trait and one must also choose it for its own sake. (30) Additionally, Zagzebski argues that the contrary of a virtue is a vice, and that a skill has no contrary. She does think that skills serve virtues by allowing a person who is virtuously motivated to be effective in action." (31) However, it seems that she is unable to maintain the distinction between virtues and skills in later chapters of her book. (32)

Are the intellectual virtues instrumentally, constitutively, or intrinsically valuable? Many of our virtue epistemologists believe that the virtues are instrumentally valuable. Thus, Sosa claims that they are valuable as means to attaining true belief, which is itself valuable. (33) Similarly, Braaten suggests that the virtues are valuable because they enable us to create community, which is intrinsically valuable. (34) Zagzebski describes two different virtue theories: one in which the virtues are happiness-based, and another in which they are motivation-based. (35) In the former, the virtues are valuable either because they are constituents of happiness, or means to bringing about happiness. In the latter, their value is not explained by their relation to something else that is the primary good." (36) Instead, they are themselves intrinsically valuable. Zagzebski is the first virtue epistemologist to seriously explore a theory of this sort. (37) Her account is intriguing, albeit difficult to defend. She intends to show that the motivational components of the intellectual virtues are intrinsically valuable by showing that these motivations can be integrated into a harmonious soul. (38) On this Platonic approach, motivations that are not intrinsically valuable will not integrate. Of course, she must then explain what this integration consists in, and why "bad" motivations cannot be integrated.

Finally, what relation do the intellectual virtues bear to truth? All of the aforementioned philosophers have commented on the relationship between the virtues and truth. Some have simply defined the virtues to be dispositions to attain the truth and avoid error in a certain field of propositions F, in certain conditions C. (39) Others have tempered this reliabilist account with additional, often internalistic, constraints. Thus, Greco has maintained that the intellectual virtues must be both reliable and grounded in the subject's conformance to the epistemic norms that she countenances. (40) Plantinga's properly functioning faculties are reliable, but they also operate in accordance with a design plan in an environment sufficiently similar to that for which they were designed. (41) And, Zagzebski maintains that the virtues have a motivational component in addition to a reliability, or success, component. (42) She thinks the virtues are enduring, acquired excellences of a person that involve the motivation for truth and reliable success in attaining that end of that motivation. Still others have argued that reliability is not a component of the virtues. According to Montmarquet, the virtues involve the desire for truth, not the reliable production of it. On his view, the virtues may turn out to be reliable, but not because reliability is built into their definitions. In fact, Montmarquet suggests that the virtue of innovativeness is unreliable. In a similar vein, Dancy argues that curiosity, intellectual diffidence, and intellectual tolerance are not truth-conducive. Kvanvig's attempt to define the intellectual virtues in terms of truth fails; so he turns to warrant. (43) Since his virtues are dispositions to acquire warranted beliefs, we might wonder whether his account is a virtue epistemology after all.


The diversity within virtue epistemology should now be quite apparent. In closing, I make some recommendations for future discussions. First, I hope that virtue epistemologists will explicitly address the foci that they intend to establish. Second, I believe that they can benefit from the work of their ethical counterparts. Developments in virtue ethics may aid us in evaluating Zagzebski's motivation-based virtue theory, and in determining the nature of the intellectual virtues and vices. Third, while I admit that the views of Sosa and Zagzebski are almost completely dissimilar, I believe that they are both interested in answering the same questions. Both are pursuing virtue epistemology, albeit different versions thereof. Ideally, I would like to see those on opposite sides of this rift enter into substantive discussions about the nature of the virtues.


(1) John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, trans., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, (New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1984), II: 14-15.

(2) Lorraine Code, Epistemic Responsibility (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1987), 8-9.

(3) This feature distinguishes it both from Cartesianism and from other epistemological accounts that reject the Cartesian focus on the evaluation of belief. Bayesianism, with its emphasis on the confirmation of theories, or chunks of theories, rather than individual beliefs, might reasonably be said to fall in the latter category. See, for example, Bas C. van Fraassen, Laws and Symmetry (New York, N.Y.: Clarendon Press, 1989).

(4) Zagzebski does. Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 15-16, 78-84.

(5) Those interested in one of these other forms of belief evaluation are welcome to choose their own representatives.

(6) Zagzebski, 79, 241, 270-271. These virtue notions are not themselves analyzed in terms of the concepts of justified belief or knowledge.

(7) Ibid., 241. I have eliminated the italics.

(8) Ibid., 271.

(9) Ernest Sosa, Knowledge in Perspective: Selected Essays in Epistemology (New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 138-145, 240-242, 276-293. Alvin I. Goldman, "Epistemic Folkways and Scientific Epistemology," in Liaisons: Philosophy Meets the Cognitive and Social Sciences (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1992), 155-169. Goldman identifies the concept of justified belief with the concept of belief obtained via the intellectual virtues. James A. Montmarquet, Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1993), 98-104.

(10) Christopher Hookway, "Cognitive Virtues and Epistemic Evaluations," International Journal of Philosophical Studies 2, no. 2 (1994): 211-227. John Greco, "Virtues and Vices of Virtue Epistemology," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 23, no.3 (September 1993): 413-432. Jane Braaten, "Towards a Feminist Reassessment of Intellectual Virtue," Hypatia 5, no.3 (fall 1990): 1-14. Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1993).

(11) Sosa, Knowledge in Perspective, 285; "Proper Functionalism and Virtue Epistemology," Nous 27:1, 1993, 61.

(12) Ibid., 286, 287, 289. Intellectual virtue V (C, F) is an inner nature that makes it very likely that S believes correctly with respect to P when P is in field F, and S is in conditions C.

(13) Zagzebski, 79, 271.

(14) Greco, 429; and Plantinga, 19. By themselves, necessary and sufficient conditions fail to distinguish between the reduced property and the reducing property. Biconditionals go both ways. They are distinct from bridge principles

(15) Zagzebski, 16, 78. To apply this to epistemology, we need only substitute 'justified' for 'right' and 'believe' for 'do'. Zagzebski is not interested in establishing this sort of focus. Order of discovery vs. objective probability.

(16) Goldman, 157.

(17) Sosa, "Proper Functionalism and Virtue Epistemology," 61.

(18) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971, 24.

(19) Daniel Statman, "Introduction to Virtue Ethics" (Department of Philosophy, Syracuse University, photocopy), 20-21. Stanley G. Clarke and Evan Simpson, eds., Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989).

(20) Code, 63.

(21) Ibid.

(22) But, see his definition of virtue in terms of warrant in Kvanvig, 140.

(23) Jonathan L. Kvanvig, The Intellectual Virtues and the Life of the Mind: On the Place of Virtues in Epistemology (Savage, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1992), 150, 157, 169, 191.

(24) Sosa, 278; Greco, 414; and Goldman, 158. Sosa distinguishes between "fundamental" and "derived" virtues.

(25) Zagzebski, 103-106. The praiseworthiness that applies to virtue is different from that which applies to natural capacities. The former reflects the fact that the virtuous person could have been vicious instead. Not so for innate capacities.

(26) David Hume would agree that this rift is unnecessary. David Hume, appendix IV to An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1994). The dispute is verbal-philosophers are encroaching on the territory of grammarians.

(27) Zagzebski, 277-283; Sosa, 289-290. Sosa does discuss derived virtues, 278. To have reflective knowledge that P, one must have animal knowledge that P, and one must have justification - one must have a belief that fits coherently within the epistemic perspective of the believer, 145. So, reflective knowledge requires an epistemic perspective - a body of meta-beliefs about the faculties one possesses, which of them contribute to which beliefs and which of them are sanctioned by one's standards. See Zagzebski, 275.

(28) Sosa, Knowledge in Perspective, 138, 234, 235, 271, 273, 276, 284. Ernest Sosa, "Virtue Perspectivism: A Response to Foley and Fumerton," Philosophical Issues 5 (1994): 31-32. On page 274 of Knowledge in Perspective, Sosa recognizes that it is better to think of virtues as competences. But, he quickly reverts to thinking of them as faculties.

(29) William P. Alston, review of Knowledge in Perspective: Selected Essays in Epistemology, by Ernest Sosa (Department of Philosophy, Syracuse University, photocopy), 4. Also see Zagzebski, 107.

(30) Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 2 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1105a18-1105b11.

(31) Zagzebski, 113.

(32) See Zagzebski's comments about the reliability component of the intellectual virtues, and her explanation of how one can attain knowledge without having the virtues. Zagzebski, 144, 176-184, 270, 271, 276.

(33) Sosa, Knowledge in Perspective.

(34) Braaten, 5.

(35) Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind, 77, 81-82, 197-211. Also see Linda Zagzebski, "Making Motivation Primary" (Department of Philosophy, Loyola Marymount University, photocopy).

(36) Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind, 202.

(37) Dancy has gestured at such a theory. See Jonathan Dancy, "Supervenience, Virtues and Consequences: A Commentary on Knowledge in Perspective by Ernest Sosa," Philosophical Studies, 78 (1995): 196, 200-201.

(38) Zagzebski, "Making Motivations Primary," 16.

(39) Sosa, Knowledge in Perspective, 138, 141.

(40) Greco, 428-429. This may cease to apply whenever warrant is no longer an issue.

(41) Plantinga, 19, 21-31.

(42) Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind, 166-184.

(43) Montmarquet, 19-34; Dancy, 197-200; Kvanvig, 111-143.


Alston, William P. Review of Knowledge in Perspective: Selected Essays in Epistemology, by Ernest Sosa. Department of Philosophy. Syracuse University. Photocopy.

Barnes, Jonathan, ed. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Vol. 2. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Braaten, Jane. "Towards a Feminist Reassessment of Intellectual Virtue." Hypatia 5, no. 3 (1990): 1 - 14.

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Cottingham, John, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, trans. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. . 2. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Dancy, Jonathan. "Supervenience, Virtues and Consequences: A Commentary on Knowledge in Perspective by Ernest Sosa." Philosophical Studies 78 (1995): 189-205.

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Hookway, Christopher. "Cognitive Virtues and Epistemic Evaluations." International Journal of Philosophical Studies 2, no. 2 (1994): 211 - 227.

Hume, David. Appendix IV to An Enquiry Concerning the principles of Morals. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1994.

Kvanvig, Jonathan L. The Intellectual Virtues and the Life of the Mind: On the Place of the Virtues In Epistemology. Savage, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1992.

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