Back    All discussions

Virtue Epistemology as circular

I'm currently studying Virtue Epistemology, amongst other things, and it is painfully apparent that the theory rests on a circularity. Knowledge is the result of the exercise of an epistemic virtue (plus other conditions depending on who you read) and so epistemic virtues get you knowledge.

But then how do we know what an epistemic virtue is? We cannot simply reply that it is that which gets us knowledge when used appropriately because this presupposes and understanding of knowledge - exactly the thing VE is supposed to inform us about.

Given VE is often largely internalist it seems that simply labelling it a form of naturalised epistemology is no good.

However I've struggled finding literature which shares my concerns.

My question is whether I am missing something so obviou no one would bother to write on it!

Any help would be greatly appreciated.


Virtue Epistemology as circular
Reply to Alex Carley

I think a very good source on this, and just about everything else, is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I wish I knew more about virtue epistemology, I’m barely up to speed. Anyhow I believe on one account, virtue is an ability, acquired or innate, or a stable character trait, that tends to produce true belief. I think having  clear visual acuity or a good memory is an example of the first. Being open-minded, paying attention to relevant evidence, are instances of the second. All of these are cognitive excellences at least in part because they tend to produce true beliefs.

So  knowledge is true belief that is a result of the exercise of abilities or character traits that are truth-conducive. In effect, knowledge is true belief that is a credit to the believer. Whatever one thinks of this definition, it isn’t obviously circular, because virtues are identified largely on account of tending to produce true beliefs. But true belief isn’t yet knowledge. So we have a way  to identify virtues independent of already having an account of knowledge..

I think there is a lot of disagreement among virtue epistemologists as to which virtues really are virtues and as to what makes them virtues. Some might think that cognitive virtues are at least somewhat their own reward. Being open-minded is an intellectual excellence the value of which isn’t exhausted merely by its being conducive to arriving at true beliefs. It’s conducive to intellectual flourishing, which is itself defined at least in part in terms of being open-minded.
Being willing to consider new ideas is simply part of what comprises intellectual health and flourishing. We might imagine two people with the same true beliefs,
one of whom accepts them as orthodoxy and is unwilling to consider alternatives, the other of whom arrives at them through open-minded inquiry.
The latter cognitive life is more valuable, arguably, and not because it produces more true beliefs. We might say that true belief is knowledge when the belief flows from traits and abilities that comprise an optimally healthy and flourishing cognitive life. Again, this isn't obviously circular, though it may not be true.
This is, obviously, a deeply normative account of knowledge. But here I am going beyond what I really know. Hope this helps.

Virtue Epistemology as circular
Reply to Alex Carley
Hi Alex,

On a virtue reliabilism view (Sosa, Greco, see Greco's "Agent reliabilism" for instance), an epistemic virtue is an agent-level reliable capacity to get *true beliefs*. It's not defined as a reliable capacity to get knowledge. Then the substantive claim is that an agent-level reliable capacity to get true belief is something that gets you knowledge. Either it's claimed that:

* S knows that p iff S's belief that p results from the exercise of a A-L reliable capacity to form true beliefs.

Or it's claimed that:

* S knows that p iff S's belief that p is true because its has been formed by the exercise of an A-L level reliable capacity to form true beliefs.

For the later, see Greco's Knowledge as Credit for true belief and Sosa's Virtue epistemology.

(Greco and Sosa are instances of non-internalist VE.)

Note also that it's not obvious that to give conditions on knowledge that we can't understand independently of the notion of knowledge itself is not necessarily a problem. See for instance Williamson's remark that "reliability" and "safety" conditions on knowledge cannot be explained/understood independently of the notion of knowledge (e.g. in Knowledge and its limits p.100-102 I think). Naturalism need not imply that everything is understandable in purely physical terms.


Virtue Epistemology as circular
Reply to Julien Dutant
Julien, Jim,

Thanks a lot for clarifying this. I think what threw me was the constant referal by Greco and Sosa to thought experiments which are often used to describe states appearing like knowlege but then are shown not to be so. As VE was suggested as a response to these I  mistakenly mistook it for a definition of knowledge.

However, as you have both rightly pointed out, the means to something is not the thing itself.

I have a feeling that I'll do rather better than I would've in Thursday's exam.


Virtue Epistemology as circular
Reply to Alex Carley
Hello and Best Premises:

Virtues are actions. They establish the means for the relationship of man's rational faculty [each man individually] to reality.  They are not circular, they are objective; they support an end; the only end in itself--human life, which requires self-generated and self- sustaining action.  Morality [ethics] spells out the objective means [guide-virtues] for reasoning/choosing [which is self-generated], and acting upon thoses life furthering efforts, [which is self-sustaining].   

Virtues are the means by which your rational faculty [reason] is able to function using the method of logic [non-contradictory reasoning; also a rigorous choice/action].  For example: The virture of Independence is the acceptance that one must use their own judgment and productive efforts for their own living. It first is an acceptance, which is a volitional [chosen] action of thought, and the subsequent physical  actions reasoned, as made necessary by the facts, to support one's existence; again more action. No dichotomy exists between a man's means of survival and reality; if it did, man could not exist. In other words, reason is practical and necessary for man's survival qua man.  Man's means of survival [his rational faculty, i.e. reason]  has an identity, that is, it is the faculty of identification. What does it identify?  Existence, which is identity.  By what means does a man establish his rational faculty to existence?  Virtue.  By what method? Logic.  What are the virtues?  Rationality, Independence, Honesty, Integeity, Justice, Productivness, and Pride.  Pride being the committment [a mental action] to moral perfection or committment to using all of the virtures consistently, [i.e., to the  actions of virteous reasonsing and physical actions necessary to live a virteous and flourishing life].   

Again: Actions...actions....; actions are first-- choices guided by a means-- and then physically acting upon those choices that further your life

For more detailed [and accurate] information, I suggest you read: The Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand and Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics by Tara Smith [Cambridge Press.]  Warmest regards,  Robert Greer  

 P.S.  The highlighting was done to emphasize actions and that there is no metaphysical or epistemological element creating a conflict between rational thought [logical identification]  as an epistemological action, and existence with its metaphysical, and therefore absolute, requirements for physical action.  Between knowing and doing.  

Virtue Epistemology as circular
Reply to Julien Dutant

There is no dichotomy between the true and man's knowledge; between existence and man's means of identifing that which exists. There is only one reality. Existence exists. Existence is identity*. A thing is what it is. Man's rational faculty is the faculty of identification. A rational non-contradictiory identification [valid concept] is knowledge of some thing; of existence.  You cannot have knowledge of nothing, or nothing inparticular i.e. without an identity.  Otherwise what would you be talking about? Nothing inparticular?   Using your means of identification, i.e. your reasoning  faculty,  you are able to arrive at knowledge by the method of logic, which is non-contradictory reasoning. When you use virture as the means for knowing reality [a mental action] and choosing physical actions according to the facts you identify, you are able to sustain your life.

Virtue is your means of establishing the relationship of your reasoning to reality.  Reality is absolute and your reason needs to know it.  It is up to you to identify and validate your conclusions using reality as the only standard for validation. If your thinking conflicts with reality it is time to correct your thinking.  Reality cannot be 'corrected' to fit your conclusions. It can be arrange or altered to suit your taste providing you follow its un-correctable nature i.e. a certain amount of heat will, when applied to a certain amount of water and tea, will at a certain altitude in a certain amount of time result in a certain event--- a cup of hot tea. It really is that simple.  
Rationality, Honesty, Independence, Integrity, Justice, Productivness and Pride.  This is how you function.  Right?
Best Premises, Robert Greer, Fairfax Virginia USA    *Ayn Rand's formulation:  See The Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand. Also, on the subject of virture, you might enjoy the book titled:  Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics by Tara Smith [Cambridge Press] 

Virtue Epistemology as circular
Reply to Alex Carley
Hello, Alex --

It might be that you will find some resonance regarding the notion of virtue in some of Gilbert Harman's work on virtue ethics.  If you go here:

and scroll down the page you'll find ""Virtue Ethics without Character Traits".  Although it might not be immediately obvious, some other papers there seem to me relevant too.  They are about special and general foundations -- in epistemology.   It might be that although there appears to be a vicious circularity in the relationship between the notions of virtue and the notion of knowledge as they appear in an epistemological theory, maybe the circle is virtuous.  A lot will depend, won't it, on how the theory as a whole organizes our questions about how knowledge happens, and how it can be secured.   Maybe the terms are somehow interdefinable, in some respectable way of defining. That would be true of some terms, perhaps, in any pair of statements, in a system, that were biconditionally related, wouldn't it?  Maybe the question which, the virtue or the knowledge, is prior, only arises if we are insisting on some kind of reductionist account?

Harman was a student of Quine's and of Goodman's, so that might indicate something about some biases he might have, and that I'd like to think I share.


Virtue Epistemology as circular
Reply to Alex Carley
Hi there,
Have you read Sextus Empiricus? You may find it fascinating.

Virtue Epistemology as circular
Reply to Alex Carley
I really don't know much about Virtue Epistemology, but I read Bernard Lonergan's stuff, and I have this hunch that what he says would be very relevant to VE. 
Perhaps you could dip into Lonergan's Insight, the Collected Works Edition p. 310-311, or ch. 10 section 3. 

And if you go back to Aristotle, you might find more on circularity. Aristotle describes the criterion of a (value) judgment as the good conscience of a virtuous man, I think. But try getting into that. It's worth it. 

Ivo Coelho