Epistemic Virtues and the Scientific Self

Author: Emanuele Ratti

Objectivity Book Cover

There is a fair amount of literature in philosophy of science about epistemic virtues. These are understood as being those characteristics that make theories and models good theories and models. Sometimes the ‘epistemic’ is understood in a technical sense, namely that such virtues make theories and models true. However, truth is a complicated thing in philosophy, so some authors decided to understand ‘epistemic’ in a humbler way. For instance, Ernan McMullin understands epistemic as something that is likely to promote those characters of science that make it the type of knowledge usually seen as the most secure knowledge available to us. However, philosophers’ accounts of epistemic values/virtues are surprisingly poor when it comes to discerning the relation between such virtues/values and those who endorse them (i.e. the scientists). The book Objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison is a welcome exception. The context of the book is the reconstruction of the history of atlases by considering the practices required to compile them and the epistemic virtues informing those practices. Atlases are systematic compilations of images within a specific scientific field. The functions of an atlas are diverse, but in particular it “trains the eye to pick out certain kinds of objects as exemplary (for example, this ‘typical’ healthy liver rather than that one with cirrhosis) and to regard them in a certain way” (Daston and Galison). The necessity of compiling such collections lies in the fact that no science can work without standardized objects that work as compasses to navigate the investigation of natural objects, which are unrefined by definition. However, there are many ways to create such images, and elaborating ‘objective’ images is just one way among the others. This book is the history of the notion of objectivity and other epistemic virtues inflected through the history of the evolution of atlases.

The important aspect of this book that I want to emphasize is the analysis of the notion of epistemic virtue. As I said at the beginning, philosophers have not connected so far the notion of epistemic virtue/value with the personal dimension of the scientist who makes choices among different values. Daston and Galison decide to consider epistemic virtues as manifestations of what they call the scientific self. By this they mean that in any epoch, the practice of science is grounded in the cultivation of a specific discipline (of the self) that is regarded as being fundamental to achieve knowledge in the first place. Epistemic virtues are then desiderata that are part of this discipline, and objectivity is only one way to discipline the self; in particular, it is a willful self that struggles to suppress aspects of the self that are deemed to bias the knower in some ways. It is a paradox; objectivity is a self which aims at suppressing the self (and hence itself) – but paradoxes are what make the history of ideas so fascinating.

Map In Book

Connecting epistemic virtues to the history of scientific selves has fruitful consequences. First, knowledge is not independent of the knower. Next, the knower is not just a passive container waiting to receive impressions to be turned automatically into knowledge by following a recipe. The knower is active and must be trained to be a knower, and this is why we “encounter admonitions, reproaches, and confessions pertaining to the character of the investigation” (Daston and Galison). The result is that epistemology needs an ethics, and this explains why “[m]uch of epistemology seems to be parasitic upon religious impulses to discipline and sacrifice (…) The mastery of scientific practices is inevitably linked to self-mastery, the assiduous cultivation of a certain kind of self” (Daston and Galison). Therefore, it seems that epistemology has to engage substantially with ethics (and virtue ethics in particular) to make sense. There might be, as Daston and Galison say, an epistemology without an ethics, but we still have to encounter one. I would modify this claim by saying that an epistemology without an ethics is a logical possibility–and analytic epistemology is exactly that – but when it comes to practicing an epistemology, the ethical dimension is indispensable to make sense of the practice itself.

Originally published by Emanuele Ratti at ctshf.nd.edu on September 02, 2017.