Saturday, August 30, 2014

There are more things in philosophy...

...Than are dreamt of in David Brooks's heaven and earth.
Harold Lloyd, The Freshman, 1925.
The old moral humilist is back from a brief holiday, somewhat refreshed and in some philosophically louche company, that of Christian psychologist Robert C. Roberts (Baylor University) and regulative epistemologist W. Jay Wood (Wheaton College). It's his more or less monthly book report, on a book by Roberts and Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007).

And what, you want to know (don't deny it!), is regulative epistemology (if not a metascientific stool softener)?
(Brooks, naturally, doesn't want to know, and omits the subtitle.)

Well, if ordinary epistemology is the branch of philosophy that tries to ascertain whether it's possible for us to know anything, and if so, how, then regulative epistemology, or Virtue Epistemology in the constructions Brooks and I are interested in, is the somewhat younger study of whether we're acquiring our knowledge in a morally justified way, of epistemic right and wrong. As Wikipedia primly puts it,
a contemporary philosophical approach to epistemology that stresses the importance of intellectual (epistemic) virtues. A distinguishing factor of virtue theories is that they use for the evaluation of knowledge the properties of the persons who hold beliefs in addition to or instead of the properties of propositions and beliefs.
Seriously. You're to be concerned not just with whether what your person is saying is true or not, but also with what kind of person she is, morally speaking, on whatever parameters of morality your theory chooses (which may or may not let Michael Oakeshott off the hook, since his best-known wickednesses could be considered non-intellectual ones). This is to cover cases of a comically Talmudic character like the original Edmund Gettier problem with which the framework originated:
Smith... and Jones have applied for a particular job. But Smith has been told by the company president that Jones will win the job. Smith combines that testimony with his observational evidence of there being ten coins in Jones’s pocket. (He had counted them himself — an odd but imaginable circumstance.) And he proceeds to infer that whoever will get the job has ten coins in their pocket. (As the present article proceeds, we will refer to this belief several times more. For convenience, therefore, let us call it belief b.) Notice that Smith is not thereby guessing. On the contrary; his belief b enjoys a reasonable amount of justificatory support. There is the company president’s testimony; there is Smith’s observation of the coins in Jones’s pocket; and there is Smith’s proceeding to infer belief b carefully and sensibly from that other evidence. Belief b is thereby at least fairly well justified — supported by evidence which is good in a reasonably normal way. As it happens, too, belief b is true — although not in the way in which Smith was expecting it to be true. For it is Smith who will get the job, and Smith himself has ten coins in his pocket. These two facts combine to make his belief b true. Nevertheless, neither of those facts is something that, on its own, was known by Smith. Is his belief b therefore not knowledge? In other words, does Smith fail to know that the person who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket? 
To be in a world where this question matters is to be in a world where angels are not merely dancing on pinheads but saving the last waltz for you.

In the most radical cases, Virtue Epistemologists may think the morality part is more important than the truth part, which is where our new friends Roberts and Wood seem to be, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
An example of extreme alternative VE is Robert Roberts and Jay Wood's (2007) view that conventional questions and methods have eviscerated epistemology, and we should instead aim to reform intellectual culture by sketching subtle and nuanced pictures (“maps”) of the intellectual virtues, drawing freely on literature, history and scripture.
The tell in that passage would be the tossed-off reference to scripture, or Scripture. The Virtue Epistemology approach allows you to cite the Bible as an authority, at least for your subtle and nuanced map, because although your particular citation is probably not true it is unarguably good—or maybe you could argue that it's not good either, but it wouldn't be very cricket or gentlemanly to do so.

I do believe there is an irrationalist conservative Christian subtext here (authors from Baylor and Wheaton, and one founding figure of the discipline, Linda Zagzebski, is an out theologian, noted for working out a proof that the doctrine of the Trinity is monotheistic, while their chief bugbear seems to be the atheist relativist Willard Van Orman Quine). Everybody is way too nice to say it, but I am getting the impression that Roberts and Wood in particular have skipped off the philosophical reservation and enlisted as intellectual shock troops in the culture wars.

I don't believe Brooks has any clue what he has walked in on, or if he has he isn't letting on. He just presents it as a nice listicle, how to be a distinguished public intellectual by following these six crazy tips. The column consists simply of a couple of introductory paragraphs devoted to the usual indirect pretense that he was thinking about this stuff on his own before he looked at the book and a concluding wrapup with character tests, Montaigne (he's forgotten that Montaigne was a poisonous self-knowing liberal), and Warren Buffett, sandwiching a rundown of the six intellectual virtues to which Roberts and Wood devote the practical half of their book, which he seems to treat as a kind of self-help manual for researchers (of whom he imagines himself to be one).
  • love of learning
It's not easy to see how this even counts as a virtue, since it seems so much out of the subject's control. Jason Baehr writes in his review,
The authors' position here, as well as its implications for an account of the structure of an intellectual virtue, strikes me as awkward and problematic. On a more standard view (Zagzebski 1996; Montmarquet 2000), something like a love of truth or knowledge is a component of an intellectual virtue -- not a virtue unto itself. 
But Brooks suggests you can acquire it on purpose, through self-cultivation, perhaps the way one can fall in love with one's spouse in an arranged marriage. Even then it's not an especially virtuous virtue, since it's equally available to the criminally depraved and to the pathologically lazy like your humble correspondent here—I knew nothing whatever about any of this stuff 24 hours ago, but I couldn't help myself once Brooks had mentioned it; by the same token, I guess, if Brooks himself had any intellectual curiosity he would have learned some of the same stuff, of which he is plainly oblivious: that his authors were working inside the very complex specialist context of the Smith and Jones anecdote above, in which Roberts's and Wood's own status and the value of what they have to say are anything but clear.
  • courage
Strictly speaking, shorthand for the Aristotelian Golden Mean between recklessness and overcaution. The authors have in mind the actual courage of confronting danger—
Courage and caution are complementary virtues that are defined in terms of facing fears and threats to genuine knowing, i.e. not acting in a cowardly manner or recklessly in the face of the (un)known. (review by James Marcum, Analysis 69/1, 2009)
—but Brooks trivializes it into the Keyboard Commando virtue of risking being wrong, with a willingness to jump to conclusions, but not too far.

Roger Pouivet treats this as example no. 1 of an intellectually lazy tendency to take a moral virtue and call it an epistemic one and then imagine you've somehow created an argument against the scoffing of skeptics who insist virtues are not involved:
Malgré tout l’intérêt du livre de Roberts et Jay Wood (2007), ils commettent une erreur qui tend à se généraliser dans l’épistémologie de vertus. On prend une vertu morale et on la qualifie d’« intellectuel(le) ». On ajoute quelques exemples, et le tour est joué. Par exemple, Roberts et Jay Wood présente comme du courage intellectuel, de publier et de diffuser ses idées malgré la répression politique, religieuse, anti-religieuse (p. 76). Mais il s’agit alors de courage moral et non intellectuel. Un tel procédé fait tomber sous le coup des critiques adressées par C. Tiercelin (2005, p. 309), celle d’une paresse intellectuelle, pour le coup, face au défi que constitue le scepticisme...
You see what I did there, by the way, a high-class version of a very Brooksian trick—picked up a glittery object that turned up while I was Google-beachcombing and shoehorned it into my discussion to make it look as if it were just a normal part of my incredibly broad cultivation. You could say it takes some courage to do that (not for me, since I just confess before you threaten to beat me up, but for Brooks, who tries, with remarkable success among the power players of his audience, not to get caught).
  • firmness
Another Aristotelian mean, between "flaccidity and rigidity" (ew!). We should keep a "grip" on "currently possessed intellectual goods", but not such a strong grip that we can't let go if need be; maintaining a kind of loyalty to the ideas but ready to drop them as courage and caution require.

This could be the spot at which Virtue Epistemology and traditional knowledge epistemology are most profoundly at odds: in knowledge epistemology truth is the only criterion that matters, and once you know a proposition to be false you have to drop it. The idea that you should cherish a hypothesis that's gone wrong like a prodigal child, giving it up only with great reluctance, seems just bizarre to me, coming from a philosophy-of-science tradition. The Catholic church persecuting Galileo showed "firmness" in the Roberts and Wood sense.

Of course this is an epistemology with an ambition beyond science and the issues of objective fact. In ethics and politics truth is necessarily a very fuzzy concept or not even relevant, so maybe I'm just being fussy. But ethicists and politicians still have to talk about objective facts from time to time, and in conservative thinking, from Leo Strauss and his famous preference for "life-giving delusion" over "deadly truth" to Karl Rove creating his own reality when the usual reality didn't meet his ideological needs, we often find objective fact treated with an extremely casual attitude; and that needs to be countered, not encouraged by notions like this "firmness" doctrine.
  • humility
Hahahahahaha David Brooks!
...not letting your own desire for status get in the way of accuracy. The humble person fights against vanity and self-importance. He’s not writing those sentences people write to make themselves seem smart; he’s not thinking of himself much at all. The humble researcher doesn’t become arrogant toward his subject, assuming he has mastered it. Such a person is open to learning from anyone at any stage in life.
I'm sure you weren't thinking of yourself there one little bit. I was thinking of you, though.
  • autonomy
Another Aristotelian mean, being independent of one's authorities but not too independent, "appropriately dependent on others' intellectual guidance and achievements." (John Turri) Calling that "autonomy" is a little Newspeaky, don't you think?
  • generosity
The "liberal giving of one's cognitive resources" (Jason Baehr) and, Brooks adds, the liberal giving out of credit for the cognitive resources you've taken. A kind of generosity nobody seems interested in mentioning is the assumption of good faith on the part of one's opponents, something that may be almost as rare among philosophers as it is among political pandits, but of which I see a great deal in the reviewers of Roberts's and Wood's book, who are careful to enumerate its good qualities even when they don't think much of it as a whole.

In general it is remarkable how much they focus on individual virtues as opposed to social ones, the collegial or communitarian kind that characterize the practice of knowledge epistemology (which may not advertise itself as virtuous, but does have some moral aspects). As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says (citing Jason Kawall, "Other-Regarding Epistemic Virtues", Ratio 15:3, 2002, long before Roberts and Wood),
Virtue ethicists have long recognized a difference between self-regarding moral virtues, such as prudence and courage, and other-regarding virtues, such as benevolence and compassion. And they have recognized the importance of both sorts. But virtue epistemologists have overlooked a similar distinction among intellectual virtues. They focus on self-regarding intellectual virtues, such as perceptual acuity or intellectual courage, which promote the individual's own intellectual flourishing. They neglect other-regarding intellectual virtues, such as honesty and integrity, which promote other people's acquisition of knowledge and intellectual flourishing.
To those I would add detachment, the obverse of Roberts's and Wood's "firmness", based on the recognition that your ideas belong not to yourself but to the intellectual community, so that you should be willing not merely to let them go if they don't work out but actively help to get rid of them; and responsibility, the recognition that wrong ideas ("Say, kids, let's put on an invasion!") have consequences. And diligence, the obverse of "humility", taking pride in your work instead of in being a gentleman amateur, as in making a little effort to find out what other people have said about things before you start making your own pronouncements.

When Brooks takes out his usual bag of tricks, basing a whole shtik on the casual reading of a single source without learning anything about its intellectual context and without acknowledging its ideological thrust, and applies it to this specific subject matter, reducing it to a stupid cookbook "six habits of effective intellectuals", the irony needs to be measured on a Richter scale.
Charley Chase in What Price Goofy, Hal Roach, 1925.

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