Epistemology and Virtue

My favorite lecture by Massimo Pigliucci is the one he does on Epistemic Virtue (which is available on YouTube). In it he says, “It’s not enough to be right about something; you have to know why you’re right” and “You don’t just want to tell other people, you want to teach other people and in order to teach other people you need to know the stuff yourself.”

I think I made a post about this on my side blog, but it’s relevant to my current self-study course on Stoicism. I’m taking the class with my mom and once a week we meet and discuss our progress, what we learned, and exchange resources. We both really like Mr. Pigliucci’s interviews and lectures, but we haven’t actually read his book “How to be a Stoic” yet. I’m holding off because I want to do the class readings first without using that as a frame.

Anywho, Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that basically deals with the question, “How do we know what we know?” It gets really mind-bendy really quick so I appreciate how the lecture broke it down. Virtue Epistemology takes a page from Virtue Ethics (something I’m more familiar with) and refocuses epistemology away from the overall universal truth and puts the focus on the individual as an agent responsible for the guardianship of their own knowledge.  I believe this to be very important in the age of the internet and flame wars. In his lecture Mr. Pigliucci provides a list of virtues and vices and a “Virtuous Skeptic” checklist.

Epistemic Virtues

  • Attentiveness
  • Benevolence (principal of charity)
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Discernment
  • Honesty
  • Humility
  • Objectivity
  • Parsimony
  • Studiousness
  • Understanding
  • Wisdom

Epistemic Vices

  • Close-mindedness
  • Dishonesty
  • Dogmatism
  • Gullibility
  • Naivete
  • Obtuseness
  • Self-deception
  • Superficiality
  • Wishful-thinking


Virtuous Skeptic checklist:

  1. Did I carefully consider my opponent’s argument without dismissing them out of hand?
  2. Did I interpret what my opponent said in the most charitable way possible before mounting a response?
  3. Did I seriously entertain the the possibility that I may be wrong or am I too blinded by my own preconceptions?
  4. Did I check the reliability of my own sources or just Google whatever was convenient to throw at my opponent?
  5. Am I an expert on this matter? If not did I consult with experts or did I just conjure my own unfounded opinion?
  6.  After having done my research do I actually know what I’m talking about or am I simply repeating someone else’s opinion?

Realizing that I have agency over my own knowledge is a powerful feeling and not a single one of my college classes gave me that feeling before now. I think if I realized sooner that I had that agency I would have been a better student. I’ll find out when I take my classes in Spring.

For my current self study my mom and I touched base this week. I’m not active on Facebook, but my mom is so she joined a couple of Stoic Groups and she ended up getting kicked out of one. One thing she noticed about the Stoic Groups is only about 25% of the members are women (and a group moderator gave her that number). I have no doubt that she was stirring up trouble to test the waters, but the fact that one group blocked her really surprised me since the Facebook groups are suppose to actively encourage discussions. For that group at least it was clear that the reason that there were so few woman in the group is because they were being systematically blocked. It would seem history is repeating itself since philosophy and stoicism were traditionally male dominated disciplines. I’m sure there were women philosophers, but I can’t name them off the top of my head.

One name that she said that kept popping up in the group discussions was “Jordan Peterson” who is a Canadian Physiology professor and has a reasonably large fan base. What does he has to do with stoicism? I have no idea because I can’t find anything on his website or sources linking him to stoicism or expressing stoic ideas. I have no idea what his name doing in stoicism discussions. What has come up in my search is brief notes about him refusing to use the singular “they” and preferred pronouns of his students.

There’s no stoicism gospel. The three big names in ancient stoicism all had their faults and their words could easily have been twisted through ages. I did find the assigned reading for the Stoicism course rather appropriate for our discussion. In Seneca’s letter he tells his friend not to fall for the trendy philosophy (the Jordan Peterson’s of his day) and asks what is philosophy? It’s certainly not banning women from FB Groups for questioning your ideas or using hurtful language towards students.

I think “real” philosophy is more like what Massimo Pigliucci was saying. It’s not enough to be “right” in a discussion. You have to know why you’re right and realize that you might not be so “right” after all.


One thought on “Epistemology and Virtue

  1. Pingback: Lingistic Relativity (a.ka. My Personal Pet-peeve) – A³

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