Philosophy of Mind Seminar (Friday - Week 6, TT23)

Philosophy of mind

The paper advances a proposal for understanding both the gradeability of knowledge, and its division into kinds (empirical, moral, aesthetic, practical, semantic, mathematical…), in terms of virtues of character and intellect, which sustain the application of knowledge in its target domain. This epistemology is thus virtue-theoretic, but virtues figure in the account of the potential of knowledge in thought and action, not in an account of its aetiology; moreover, I will give no privilege to traditional “intellectual” or “cognitive” virtues.  

I begin from John Hyman’s (2015) plea for the prospective perspective in epistemology; a metaphysics of knowledge that flows from reflection on “how knowledge is applied, employed, expressed, in the infinitely varied circumstances of human life.” With this orientation, Hyman argues that factual knowledge is a rational ability, the ability to be guided by facts as reasons (in action, thought and affect). But the prospective perspective makes two points salient. First, much of the knowledge “applied, employed and expressed” in daily life is non-factual; at least, it diverges from the simple empirical knowledge Hyman (following traditional epistemology) takes as a focus. Second, “the infinitely varied circumstances of human life” do not present an undifferentiated chaos: they are organised by institutions and practices, each with its characteristic ends and ethos. A third, controversial point follows simply from the view that (factual) knowledge is an ability: abilities are gradable; thus, if knowledge is one, it is gradable also.  

My appeal to virtues (and vices) is animated by these three concerns. My central thoughts are: 

(i) with some provisos, knowing conceived as sensitivity to reasons plausibly enfolds more than simple empirical knowing, including moral and practical knowing. 

(ii) an individual’s sensitivity to reasons is mediated by an indefinite range of psychological factors, and some of these are virtues (or vices) cultivated in the pursuit of field-specific ends, for example memory-training for a chess player. 

(iii) on Hyman’s rational ability view this reasons-sensitivity just is knowing, thus knowing will be shaped and trained—modified and improved—by these factors.  

(iv) the ability to take guidance from a reason of a certain sort (moral, aesthetic, mathematical, linguistic) is best characterised by paradigm if not ideal cases, and the repertoire of virtues recruited in taking that guidance: this delivers the salient differences between knowledge of different kinds. 

Philosophy of Mind Seminar convenors: Mike Martin, Matthew Parrott, Will Davies and Anil Gomes