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Incompetent knowledge

This is my sketchy and very hastily concocted short paper for the Colloquium tomorrow around Sosa's new Judgment and Agency:

1.A salient and attractive feature of the virtue approach in epistemology is that it tends to place human knowledge within a realm of genuinely epistemic phenomena in the world. Zagzebski, in her Understanding Knowledge (2001), diagnoses that we are entering an askeptical period where the treat of skepticism is taken as dissolved or innocuous and epistemologists turn their eyes to the connection between knowledge and the rest of the world by seeing knowledge within a more general context of practices with truth and action-guidance. A symptom of this askeptical turn – or at least of the move towards seeing human knowledge within a broader epistemic realm – is the widespread use of expressions like animal knowledge as basis for comparison with human epistemic endeavors and norms. Philosophers have found themselves having to provide reasons to justify accounts of knowledge that cater for no more than the human experience.

If the goal becomes to understand knowledge using the resources of all sorts of phenomena where truth leaves a mark, to concentrate on human practices could sound parochial and limited. If epistemology is no longer to be placed in a skeptical scenario where each dealing with truth has to prove itself not to be an illusion but rather in a metaphysical scenario where our access to some features of the world is taken as granted, the general phenomenon of acquiring truths is what seems to be requiring an account. Virtue epistemology is best described within this scenario: it is not about convincing anyone that we have genuine virtues geared towards capturing truths but rather to make use of virtues to understand (modest or impressive) episodes of knowledge.

Virtues have been used to bridge the gap between actions and their results – virtues point towards adroitness while considering goal oriented behavior. They could be a good starting point to consider human knowledge within a broader context that include animals and other agents. Plutarch, in his attempt to show how animals use reason, in his Bruta animalia ratione uti, appeal to virtues: animals are courageous, prudent, compassionate and even wise; Ulysses' old companion turned into pig by Circe's magic, persuades the Odysseus that his life as a pig is not only happier but thoroughly more virtuous that that as a human. Virtues can be considered in different agents and can be compared by ethological considerations – and Plutarch engage in comparing the behavior of humans in pigs in relevatly similar situations (provided that they can be made relevantly similar).

To be sure, to place human virtues – and human epistemic virtues in particular – within the context of virtues in general is not to obliterate their peculiarity. Likewise, to claim that the virtues deployed in successful human knowledge are of the same sort of those used by other agents is not to take humans to have solely animal knowledge, for instance. To place human knowledge in a broader epistemic context is not to reduce it to something else but rather to avoid taking it as a unique, fully sui generis phenomenon that cannot be explained in relation to anything else. Hence, features of human knowledge – such as its susceptibility to reflection and the import of reflective access, its association to knowing one's own skills at performing accurately, its capacity to discriminate adequate scenarios from others under normal circumstances – are best understood if taken together with other, more general, epistemic events. In his Judgment and Agency (2015), Sosa attempts to provide one of such unified view where knowing reflectively and full well are understood in terms akin to that of animal knowledge – except for a second-order capacity of the knower that is present when full competence leads to full aptness in knowing. I think this is an attractive and fruitful move for it invites an externalist take on reflection and one that doesn't make it a sui generis, dissociate phenomenon.

2.My main contention here will be that knowledge is to be understood as being permeable or affected by truths. I conceive this contention as externalist in the following sense: a genuine episode of knowing doesn't have to be discriminated from episodes of illusion neither by the knower nor by any observing agent. That is, I take discrimination – and not reflective access, as Pritchard (2012) and others suggest – to be the main distinctive feature of an epistemological externalism. In terms akin to Lehrer & Cohen's (1983) new evil genius, there is no independent factor that is common between a knower and her counterpart whose brain is in a vat. However, as Sosa points out (2015: 15-16), this is not enough to dismiss the traditionalist claim that there is nothing in common between the good and the bad cases for there could be something in common which is not an independent factor. There could be a causal connection between what is known and the knower that would be present in bad cases but just not “in the right way” - to use the expression Sosa borrows from Davidson. Similarly, one can be in touch with the truth of one's belief but not in touch to other relevant truths – including truth about counterfactual situations – and therefore fail to know. In this case, the subject would merely have a true belief by chance and her having this episode of epistemic luck will make her access to the truth of her belief entirely different from the access a knower would have.

In any case, I would understand knowledge in terms of access to truths – more about access below. It is in this sense that the understanding I suggest is externalist: there is no element of knowledge that is independent of truth. Hence, there is no such element to knowledge as justification if justification is independent of what is true about the world. Clayton Littlejohn (2012) has an account of justification as factive according to which there could be no justified false belief for falsehood precludes a belief from being justified. My proposal is akin to his, except I won't focus on justification but rather claim that knowledge in general is to be understood in terms of being permeated or affected by truths.

I present this sketchy externalist account of knowledge because it is useful to contrast it with Sosa's (2015) better virtue epistemology. Although an analysis in terms of virtues have the advantage of allowing a comparison across the board between different kinds of agents, I propose to change the focus from virtues and virtuosity to virtuality and the virtual. As it was clear from the early days of the introduction of virtues in the epistemological debates, a appeal to virtues – or, for that matter, on capacities – could be externalist, for one could be unaware of how virtuous one is – or how much of capacity one is exercising. Bernard Williams, in his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), has argued that one can fail to act ethically if one engages with virtues in too much of a third-personal way. That is, if one asks oneself what is the courageous (or prudent) line of action before performing, it could mean that one doesn't have the virtues sufficiently ingrained in themselves for them their act to be ethical. Clearly, if there is a sense of unawareness that could spell virtue, that doesn't entail that unawareness is itself epistemologically virtuous. In any case, it is clear that the emphasis on virtues could be externalist for one doesn't have to discriminate one's virtues in order to be virtuous.

However, the focus on virtues is still too much a focus on the structure of the agent – on her internal make-up, so to speak. The knower is supposed to be the seat of all the non-manifest features of knowledge – not due to the truths she accesses about the world (latent or occurrent) but rather due to her competence in performing a skill. The focus is on what the knower was capable of doing, and not on what truths were captured by her performance. So, talk of competence points towards one's abilities and not towards truths. Zagzebski has that the knower gets credit for her episode of knowing and that knowledge is some sort of admirable true belief. A belief could be admirable for the competences of an agent but also because it is seated on other truths. Those truths set up the standard to capture them – and competences could be persistently insufficient if they are not tuned to what they aim to achieve. In fact, to each competence there is a class of truths latently accessed by the agent but the different competences are different because they suppose familiarity with different truths. So, to play baseball and to play rugby require different classes of competences (presumably with overlaps) because the games are different – and not because the competences are inherently different. To focus on being permeable or affected by truths is to focus on truth percolations and not on the agent's ways to be prepared for them.

3.Sosa proposes his better virtue theory in terms of a theory of competence (2015: 95ff). His analysis involves his SSS (or SeShSi) scheme: in full competence, the innermost seat of a competence in the agent is joined by the agent being in the right shape – which is also inner – and the outer situation to be appropriate. Full aptness – accurate behavior because adroit – requires full competence and second-order competence in determining one's own competence. The SSS analysis is thought in terms of dispositions (and finks, and antidotes): the seat is not enough, the seat and the shape is not enough. It is like the analysis of first and second potentiality in Aristotle: seat is like first potentiality while shape and situation are more like second potentiality (or first actuality). While full competence requires SSS, partial competence could involve just part of the triad. Like with non-actualized potentialities – or with fink dispositions – there are competences that never gets exercised, even if they are full for there is something that prevent them to be actualized. According to C. B. Martin's analysis of the conditional analysis, finkish dispositions are the main general obstacle to any attempt to understand dispositional predicates in terms of categorical ones in a conditional relation. The analysis has to be restricted to (eventually) actualized dispositions.

Now, conditional analyses are similar to tracking approaches to knowledge. Consider a conditional understanding of knowledge along the following lines: S believes p, p is true and a counterfactual conditional (c) holds:
(c) not-p is true if and only if S believes it.
That is, knowledge is true belief that would be corrected if the world were different. This condition of promptness to correction is what makes knowledge more invaluable – and belief more admirable – than mere true belief. This appeal to counterfactuals often makes tracking approaches look unattractive and encourage epistemologists to cash out the counterfactual vocabulary in different ways. To talk about competence – as it is an appeal to dispositions – can be seen as one of these ways. One ascribes to the subject S an inner structure that predisposes her to track truth. Sosa compares this competence with other non-epistemic capacities and makes use of the SSS structure of competence that is embedded in the AAA analysis of aptness (accuracy, adroitness and aptness – accurate because adroit). There is something internal to the knower that makes her competent if she is in the right shape and in the right situation. She can then access her competence supposedly by applied introspection: am I capable to shoot accurately from this distance (meaning the distance she is in this particular moment)? The question addresses her competence, and not what she will end up doing. She doesn't discriminate cases where she will fail while being fully competent (bad cases) from cases where she succeeds while being fully competent (good cases). But she does discriminate competence. There is room for a competent and yet inaccurate action (a competently formed yet false belief).

4.It is to this analysis of (c) provided by Sosa that I would contrast a virtuality-based analysis. The counterfactual (c) could also be analyzed in other (equally modal) terms: there is something about the world that makes the conditional work. So one knows that it is going to rain by looking at the sky and sensing the actualities of the positions of the clouds and the direction of the wind but also accessing the virtuality that if the wind were blowing in the opposite direction it wouldn't rain. This analysis in terms of virtuality is mute about the competences of the agent – what matters is that true relevant virtualities are believed together with the target belief (that it is going to rain). An admirable belief is one that is couched in other true beliefs – incidentally, this is how we recognize genuine knowledge, by considering what else does the believer know apart from the target belief. In other words, the virtuality approach has that knowledge never comes in isolation, it is always supported by other pieces of knowledge. It is however not enough to take knowledge to be any critical mass of true beliefs. The virtuality approach would require the agent to have true beliefs about the relevant virtualities. That is, how the world would behave in slightly different circumstances. To be sure, knowing virtualities – as having competences – is not enough for knowledge and is not enough to discriminate good cases from bad cases, not even if we add the requisite of a second-order virtuality according to which one knows virtualities – for instance in terms of laws – concerning one's reliability (something like “if the wind were moving rapidly I would hesitate in my prediction of rain”).

Also, from a point of view like Goodman's, competences and virtuality are both translatable to counterfactuals and as such they are interchangeable. Their truth-conditions are the same and they would be verified (that is manifest in actuality) precisely under the same circumstances. Verifying competences and verifying virtualities require similar procedures. However the metaphysical import is different: while dispositions are properties of the agent, virtuality points at salient features of how the world is. A view based on dispositions or competences ascribe properties to the agent, whereas a view based on virtualities ascribes no more than the present access to a critical mass of truths. One could, in principle at least, know of virtualities while having no specific competence – one could know about the sky in one's own town in a way that would make she predict rain knowingly there but not anywhere else. Clearly, competences as much as virtualities, can be circumscribed to regions or times – the Barney case comes to mind – but talk about virtualities ascribes nothing to the agent but being permeated and affected by truths. There is an element of skill associated to attaining truths, but skill – or the virtuous inner structure of the agent – doesn't have to be taken into consideration epistemically. It doesn't matter how competent a true believer is, if there is enough virtual truths captured, there is knowledge.

Sosa (2015: 41-45) makes a number of remarks on how some virtues are not genuinely epistemic even though they contribute to the attainment of knowledge. Considering dedication to investigation he writes:

It might be that someone’s obsessive pursuit of truth, even at the cost of malnourishment and depression, puts them in a position to attain truths that are denied to their healthy rivals. Even if such obsession to the point of ill health does reliably lead to truth on certain matters inaccessible otherwise (even if, I say), the exercise of such personal qualities (obsessiveness) would hardly constitute knowledge. (41-2)

Obsessiveness could help attaining knowledge in some circumstances but it is unclear how it turns a true belief in knowledge (one could phrase the difference in terms of admirable belief and admirably acquired belief). There are all sorts of competences and virtues that could help acquire knowledge but are not manifested in the correctness of the belief; perhaps because the same knowledge could be acquired without it. Sometimes it is just a matter of luck that makes a capacity or a disposition fit to attain knowledge, a luck that is not epistemic luck but that invokes favors of the world in the sense that a particular (non-epistemic) disposition is rewarded with genuine knowledge. Sosa considers the case of the disposition towards laziness who

[…] could have as much knowledge in a given domain as would someone industrious. The lazy knower could just by luck be placed in the position to know, a position that the industrious knower would need to win with much effort and persistence. (45)

My claim is that no quality and no competence can itself constitute knowledge in all cases. No virtue is therefore epistemically relevant in all cases – there are cases where they are epistemically as tangential as laziness or obsessiveness in the examples above. There could be scenarios where a specific incompetence is epistemically rewarded. Sosa would then counter that in these scenarios the agent with the specific competence in question doesn't have full competence because there is no second-order right assessment of the competence in the specific scenario (seat and shape could be present but the assessment of the situation in such scenario would be flawed). It is as if there is a full competence applicable to each scenario and assessment is right only if it is aware of changes in the scenario – which rings like a disjunctivist element in his construction. But the main problem here is perhaps that of the individuation of competences. How should we proceed to distinguish the different full competences associated to agents in different scenarios? The answer could be: why bother. In other words, what matters clearly is not competence itself, but what it leads, not only in terms of mere actualities, but in terms of what supports the counterfactual that distinguishes a mere true belief from an epistemic state of genuine knowledge. This is the virtue of virtuality. It provides a metaphysics of knowledge, but not one to do with the inner structure of a successful knower but rather one to do with what has to be accessed in the world for knowledge to take place.


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