A forum for VE lucubration

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Value Turn in Epistemology

In his very interesting paper "The Value Turn in Epistemology," Wayne Riggs uses this locution (Value Turn) to characterize a relatively recent trend in epistemology. The 'Value Turn', as he puts it, has consisted in both a widening of the scope of epistemically interesting concepts as well as a methodological change of guard. Both the widening in scope and change in epistemic method reflect an increasing interest in normative features of epistemic inquiry.

I think it is safe to say that the 'Value Turn' has been, in no small way, kick-started by the rise of virtue-theoretic approaches to epistemic evaluation that have emerged in the latter half of the past century. As Zagzebski has put it: the virtue-theoretic approach seeks to define epistemic concepts by examining properties of persons, rather than properties of beliefs.

The virtue-theoretic project encompasses both the shifts in scope and methodology that Riggs mentions. Consider, first, methodology: When attempting to determine whether S's belief that p is justified, the virtue-theoretic approach prescribes that we must first ask whether the agent came to form the belief in the right kind of way. Rather, then, to ask questions such as: "Is the belief appropriately causally connected to the fact that p" or "was the belief produced in a reliable manner"-- the virtue-epistemologist asks questions such as, "Was the agent epistemically responsible in forming the belief p", "Did her belief arise out of acts of intellectual virtue", etc.

This change in methodological evaluation results in a widened scope of epistemically interesting concepts.

For example: One way to answer whether an agent's belief has resulted from intellectually virtuous believing will be to first stipulate some epistemic value that constitutes 'epistemic flourishing' and then to identify what traits constitute intellectual virtues by considering the extent to which they promote this value.

Some VE theorists identify 'true belief' as the end value, and define the virtues as those traits that are truth-conducive. (Note: also interesting to some VE theorists is not just whether the agent's trait leads her to reliably produce true beliefs, but also, whether the agent is appropriately motivated to reach this end).

Other VE theorists, such as Riggs, do not limit 'true belief' as the epistemic end relative to which virtues are definable, but rather, allow other non-alethic epistemic values (such as intelligibility) to count as epistemic goals.

One thing that can be learned from these varying approaches within VE is that the virtue-theoretic method of epistemic evaluation opens the door to normative features of inquiry that had in the past been, by and large, considered out of the scope of what is crucial to evaluate central epistemic concepts such as justification and knowledge.

Aside from the method and scope sea change, there are two other auguries that (I shall propose) characterize the 'Value Turn.'

The first feature has to do with luck. The VE project in its infancy arose as a new strategy for dealing with Gettier problems. The idea is that Gettier problems feature cases in which knowledge is undermined (in some relevant way) by luck; combine this fact with the idea that success through luck appears at odds with success through ability, and you get the makings for an anti-luck strategy that doesn't focus solely on properties of beliefs--a strategy that post-Gettier literature shows has failed.

The history of the Gettier problem is a testament to its importance, and the Value Turn has provided us with promising strategies for meeting the problem that were previously overlooked. (Greco's credit-based response to the Gettier problem is an example of this type of anti-luck approach).

Thirdly, I don't think we can do justice to the idea of a Value Turn in epistemology without granting that it is characterized, in part, by a resurgance of interest in the Meno problem--which have been given much attention recently thanks to Jon Kvanvig's (2003) book on the value of knowledge. Apart from the case he makes for the value of 'understanding' as importantly distinct from the value of knowledge, he offers some convincing arguments for the idea that an adequate account of the nature of knowledge must be amenable to a corresponding account of the value of knowledge. Put another way, if an account can't explain why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief, then this account is a failure even if it is a counterexample-free account of the nature of knowledge.

To sum up what I've suggested: VE has been an impetus to the 'Value Turn' in epistemology (in part, at least) for the reason that it takes normative evaluation to be indespensible to the task of defining central epistemic concepts; Ability-based responses to the Gettier problem motivate the idea that an adequate anti-luck account of the nature of knowledge cannot ignore the idea the importance of normative features of inquiry such as ability and creditworthiness; the resurgance of the Meno problem instigated by Kvanvig's book (and the responses to it) motiates not only interest in epistemic axiology, but also the idea that an account of the nature of knowledge, independent of a corresponding account of the value of knowledge, is incomplete.

Now comes a plea for addition:

I'm curious as to what other facets of the 'Value Turn' I am leaving out. It is quite clear that normative epistemology is getting a great deal more attention than it used to... I'm very interested as to how others would go about characterizing this movement.

Additionally, an interesting question would be: What books and journal articles best represent the 'Value Turn'?

Please do share any thoughts!