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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Andrew McGonigal on Eflin's "Epistemic Presuppositions and their Consequences": the question of heirarchy

I am glad I’m not paid to keep score in the essay-debate between Juli Eflin and Andrew McGonigal found in Moral and Epistemic Virtues (2003). I would give up somewhere around the point where Andrew McGonigal (in his criticism of Eflin’s essay “Epistemic Presuppositions and Their Consequences”) offers the following brief and biting criticism of Eflin’s project:

“…given that Eflin seems to hold that a combination of rules and procedures and virtue theory can provide the relevant explanations, it is difficult to see why her own theory is not both hierarchian and complete, contrary to advertisement—it looks to me as if she just takes a broader range of conceptually basic elements as necessary to provide complete explanations of problems within the epistemological domain.” (73)

Some background, after which McGonigal’s claim will become more clear…

Eflin’s position, begins with a criticism of “traditional epistemology” (her characterization of which is doubted by McGonigal) along several lines, which include that TE is “heirarchial” and “complete.” What do these terms mean? Eflin defines them as follows:

“For a theory to be heirarchial, some set of notions is taken as basic and other dlements in the theory are derived from or reduced to these basic elements” (p. 50). Also, Eflin claims that, if a theory posits self-justifying elements which explain other elements, then the theory is heirarchial. (50).

Completeness: “For a theory to be complete, everything in a theory’s domain is accounted for in terms of the basic concepts.”

Some examples of theories that are “heirarchial and complete”, according to Eflin, include Coherentism (i.e. BonJourian), as well as virtue theories such as Zagzebski’s, the latter of which, Eflin claims, posits the virtues as basic concepts from which other concepts are derivable (hence “heirarchial”) and committed to virtue as a “success term” (hence, Eflin thinks, complete).

An aside: I am skeptical of her characterization of Zagzebski’s position as heirarchial and complete. It is more clear that foundationalism and Coherentism would be candidates, though.

Anyhow—Eflin, after demarcating “traditional epistemology” as branded by being heirarchial and complete (among other criticisms, such as requiring the supposition of ideal knowers, etc.), she presents her own account—which has the virtues as well as rules as primary (central, ,but not such that other concepts can be derivable from them), but not basic—and which she thinks is not heirarchial and complete, and which has added benefits of not being “context-stripping” or stipulating ideal knowers. She describes her account as a pluralistic virtue-centered epistemology. She uses the term “virtue centered” rather than “virtue theory” because, on her view, the latter description would imply that virtue is taken as basic within the theory. Eflin’s account avoids taking virtue as basic by using what she calls a teleological position, in which understanding is identified as the end of human life (or, an end). However, says Eflin:

“We can say ‘understanding’ in the abstract, and we can discuss the various virtues on which an inquirer needs to draw to produce it, but ‘understanding’ simpliciter cannot be given an account, nor can an inquirer have it. I can only achieve particular understanding from where I am, that is, from my context. It has to be an understanding needed by an individual, achievable from her present understanding and through her epistemic virtues, or from ones she can develop.”

The problem that I saw, and which I think McGonigal (in the quote I presented initially) finds problematic here is that Eflin seems to be trading one basic concept for another. Rather than to have a basic concept of virtue from which all other concepts are derivable, she has understanding as such a concept. It seems to me that, although she doesn’t say this clearly, she thinks that because understanding simpliciter remains vacuous on her account (so that she can avoid “context-stripping”), that therefore, understanding is disqualified from being a basic concept from which other concepts are being derived, and a fortiori, she has not committed the sin of hierarchy. This seems to me a dubious inference. As McGonigal suspects of her, “it looks to me as if she just takes a broader range of conceptually basic elements as necessary to provide complete explanations of problems within the epistemological domain.”

Is that what she’s doing?

There are at least a couple questions which at this point need to be answered if we are to attempt to “deobfuscate” the issue of whether her theory avoids the charge of being heirarchial (which, to reiterate, she insists it is not).

(1) From what premises does Eflin get to the conclusion that her theory is not heirarchial, given the definition she presents for a theory’s being heirarchial.
(2) How are we to go about determining whether “understanding” fits the bill of a basic concept in her view. Additionally, what is the relationship between a concept’s being un-analyzable simpliciter and that concept’s qualifying as basic within a theory?

Without answers to these (and perhaps some more) questions, I’m inclined to think that McGonigal’s criticism is on target. Her pluralistic virtue-centered epistemology is simply invoking a broader range of concepts, and using a concept (understanding, relativized to a particular knower, in her own context) as basic.

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