Research Abstracts

Some virtue theoretic reasons to accept the claims of standpoint theorists 

I argue that virtue reliabilists have good reasons to accept the claims of standpoint theorists.  Specifically, virtue reliabilists should accept that marginalization may provide the opportunity for some epistemic benefit to marginalized persons.  

Standpoint theory begins with the assertion that, because knowledge is socially situated, certain socio-political positions can become sites of epistemic privilege.  The nature of this epistemic benefit is a matter of contention.  I maintain that virtue reliabilism provides a broader systematic framework explaining how some socio-political positions provide the opportunity for more virtuous social cognitive capacities.

I argue that marginalized social location affects the cognitive capacities involved in social cognition, making some of them more reliable and veridical, and therefore more likely to produce beliefs that more accurately reflect reality.  I argue that those capacities sometimes qualify as intellectual virtues, in that their skillful and successful function is able to and often does justify beliefs.  Because of their socio-political location, which encourages better refined and more accurate conceptual resources, some marginalized persons have more reliable mindreading capacities than their more privileged peers.  Specifically, because they are more likely to inhabit multiple epistemic communities, they have better stereotypes to employ in social perception.

I draw extensively on social psychological research, which provides empirical evidence that social structures influence the role of mental representations in the social perceptual process, and that subjects with multiple cultural identities employ various cultural frameworks to reliably and accurately engage various social worlds.  

Testimonial Injustice and Standpoint

Some reliabilist theories of virtue epistemology claim that a belief has positive epistemic status sufficient for knowledge when it is produced by a reliable faculty that is functioning properly in an appropriate environment.  If this claim or something similar is correct, and if testimonial injustice prevents certain beliefs from being properly justified when they ought to be, then it is possible that testimonial injustice may be the result of a dysfunction in either a faculty or an environment.  Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice considers that such injustice is the result of prejudicial stereotypes affecting the faculty by which we assess testimonial contributions. 

Alternately, we may consider testimonial injustice to be the result of prejudicial stereotypes’ preventing the epistemic environment from being “appropriate” in regard to epistemic justification.  Research on implicit bias and stereotype threat corroborates this understanding of prejudice and stereotyping as “warping” the environment such that it cannot be epistemically fruitful in regard to certain kinds of knowledge (specifically, testimonial knowledge from negatively stereotyped persons).   

Further, I believe that, if a prejudicial environment is a cause of epistemic injustice, then this relationship may provide support for standpoint theory’s general premise (that “socially and politically marginalized groups are in a position of epistemic privilege vis-à-vis social structures”).  Namely, if we can understand stereotypes as having tainted the epistemological environment, then virtue theory provides an interesting account of the function of standpoint, and is able to explain how it is that persons in positions of social privilege may have more difficulty in reliably using their epistemological capacities, especially in regard to issues of marginalization, oppression, and social privilege.  Rather (as some understandings of reliabilism maintain), those with the best scripts and personae will have more trustworthy epistemological perceptions, and thus have beliefs that are closer to truth (or some other positive and desirable epistemic status).  Multiply marginalized persons who are able to exist in and successfully engage multiple social and political “worlds” may have better, more reliable scripts and personae.  As a result, their perceptions may be the most reliable, and their justified beliefs may be closest to the truth. 

In this paper, I use the empirical literature on implicit bias and stereotype threat to interpret and develop the implications for standpoint theory and for epistemic injustice.  I believe this literature provides insight as to why socially marginalized persons may have better schemas and personae, and as a result, may be in a position of epistemic privilege.  Further, I believe this insight can help distinguish which cognitive capacities or epistemic virtues are simply limited, and which cause actual distortion.  The essay will engage theories of reliabilist virtue epistemology (specifically, those of Greco and Sosa), epistemic injustice (Miranda Fricker), and feminist standpoint (Patricia Hill Collins, Nancy Hartsock).  

Testimonial Injustice and Mindreading

In her work, Miranda Fricker describes epistemic injustice, and considers possible correctives to it.  She proposes acquisition of the virtues of epistemic justice as a corrective for epistemic injustice on the individual level.   Testimonial injustice, which occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to inappropriately deflate the credibility attributed to a speaker, prevents the hearer from forming true beliefs or causes the formation of false ones, thus undermining the knowledge-distribrution function of testimony.   Fricker believes inculcation of the virtue of testimonial responsibility may neutralize the effects of prejudice by “compensating [the hearer’s credibility judgments] upwards.”   

Theorists have objected to Fricker’s focus on conscious efforts, and question whether individual actions can be effective against such injustice.   Fricker responds to these objections by maintaining that, though she recognizes “individual virtue is only part of the solution” and “structural mechanisms also have an essential role in combating epistemic injustice,” she defends her “conception of how an individual hearer might develop virtues of epistemic justice…” by reference to “empirical social psychological evidence supporting the possibility of reflective self-regulation for prejudice in our judgements.”  I maintain that, if neuroscience on the cognitive capacity known as “mindreading” is correct, then Fricker’s account of virtue-acquisition is off the mark.  That is, I maintain that perception of credibility involves (or may be a form of) “mindreading,” the cognitive capacity by which we predict human behavior and explain that behavior in terms of mental states such as beliefs, desires, and intentions.    

If testimonial injustice involves mindreading, there is little empirical evidence for our ability to cultivate virtues of epistemic justice in the way Fricker describes.  I present an argument for pessimism that adult individuals might succeed in this endeavor, because evidence indicates that conscious awareness of prejudice cannot undermine implicit biases, and that our best bet to overcome testimonial injustice is to address the problem socially. 

Violence, Justice, and Forgiveness

This paper attempts to address Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that violence is sometimes morally necessary but never morally justified.  It does so by introducing Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s theory that justice can be obtained through apology and forgiveness.  An objection to her theory, though, is that some deeds are beyond forgiveness; this is Madikizela’s interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s claim that acts of radical evil can be neither punished nor forgiven.  I maintain that Arendt intends only that unrepentant evil is unforgivable.  As a result, the objection fails to have purchase; if even heinous acts are made forgivable through remorse and sincere apology, then it is possible to obtain justice for them by means other than violence.  As a result, the argument that justice sometimes requires violence is undermined, and pacifist justice is possible.  Beauvoir’s claim, then, is false:  violence is not morally necessary.

Feminist Epistemology, Doxastic Practices, and Epistemic Injustice

In their article “Are Old Wives Tales Justified?” Vrinda Dalmiya and Linda Martín Alcoff notice that traditional women’s beliefs are “considered to be mere tales or unscientific hearsay and fail to get accorded the honorific status of knowledge.”   The two authors address the absence of women’s traditional, non-propositional beliefs from serious epistemological inquiry.  They maintain that knowledge has been defined, and justification requirements for knowledge have been constructed, such that they eliminate women’s traditional beliefs from both the realm of knowledge in general and that of epistemically-interesting knowledge in particular.  Dalmiya and Alcoff propose an epistemology that would take women’s traditional knowledge, especially knowledge-how, seriously.    Such a theory would do well to define knowledge in terms of capacity, rather than as justified true belief.

Indeed, contemporary virtue epistemology has enjoyed a degree of success by defining knowledge as “success through ability.”   However, mainstream virtue epistemologists rarely address non-propositional, or procedural, knowledge.   Further, they have not engaged the project proposed, or addressed the problems raised, by Dalmiya and Alcoff; as a result, the exclusion of women’s traditional beliefs from epistemological respect, or even treatment, continues.  While feminist virtue theorists have attempted to address the issue of the exclusion of women’s knowledge from epistemic work by creating agent-centered theories, their projects have largely not been promoted by mainstream virtue epistemologists.   As a result, women’s traditional knowledge remains in the margins of epistemology.

A fully-functional epistemology, however, must account for the acquisition and justification of all types of knowledge.  I maintain that non-feminist virtue epistemology should more fully address non-propositional knowledge’s epistemic importance and account for its status as knowledge, because such an absence diminishes epistemology.  This is not the only reason to address knowledge-how, though; the epistemic status of women’s traditional beliefs undermines women in their capacities as knowers, making women who hold such beliefs the victims of epistemic injustice.   I maintain that virtue epistemology has many of the means necessary to remedy the problem of this exclusion and injustice.  Specifically, I argue that William Alston’s doxastic practice epistemology can be used to theorize knowledge-how, though it has not been.   First, though, his philosophy must undergo a feminist critique in order to be successful at righting the exclusion described by Dalmiya and Alcoff.

In short, Dalmiya and Alcoff’s suggestion of treating knowledge as successful practice is intended to address the exclusion of women’s traditional beliefs from epistemological treatment.  This essay is an attempt to use Alston’s theory to begin to remedy this epistemic injustice.     

Thomas Aquinas, Mindreading, and Faith

Eleonore Stump gives an account of Thomas Aquinas’s epistemology wherein some beliefs are acquired by acts of will, or have a voluntary component.  She maintains that belief in the propositions of faith is acquired in this way, through the will’s influence on the intellect, rather than by the intellect’s being moved by its own object of truth.  Given that this is the case, it is unclear whether Aquinas is able to account for the epistemic justification of belief in the propositions of faith.  That is, it seems intellectually vicious for a belief to be acquired by the will’s moving the intellect to assent based on the will’s desire for something other than truth. The voluntary belief-formation process she describes might even seem to justify wish-fulfillment beliefs. 

Stump explains, however, that belief in the propositions of faith is justified by the nature of metaphysical reality and the design plan of the intellect.  She provides a reliabilist explanation of epistemic justification, and describes the process by which we acquire faith as a second-personal relationship of mind-reading.  In her “Faith, Wisdom, and the Transmission of Knowledge through Testimony,” Stump details this second-personal account.  She uses Thomistic virtue theory as a means for explaining one kind of transmission of knowledge through testimony, explaining how coming to believe through testimony counts as intellectually virtuous, and how the knowledge acquired is epistemically valuable. 

I believe, however, that the account is plagued by one fault: the mind-reading capacity she describes is especially prone to give false results when there is strong wishfulness for a certain position.  This is applicable to belief in the propositions of faith.  To describe this objection clearly, I will detail Aquinas’s theory of faith, including the relationship of will to intellect, then describe the Thomistic psychology that makes such beliefs possible.  Finally, I explain my concern, which is that the cognitive process of mind-reading is not reliable enough to epistemically justify beliefs.

The Moral Status of Women in Kant's Political and Ethical Theory

Kant’s ethics and political theory are seemingly in tension, given that the focus of Kantian ethics is human autonomy, while his political theory denies autonomy to women.  As a result, Kant’s moral and political philosophies appear to be inconsistent.  I maintain that this apparent conflict can be explained by Kant’s ascription of both humanity and personhood only to a very narrow field of homo sapiens.  He maintains that rationality is the basis for human autonomy, but believes it is only present in adult males of European ancestry.  All other homo sapiens, therefore, are not free, not moral agents, and consequently, not human.  Since only relatively few people are autonomous, and therefore have humanity, Kant’s moral theory only applies to a small number.

Ultimately, my claim is this:  Kant associates reason and moral action, then denies that women are rational.  Insofar as he links these two, when he denies that women are rational, he excludes them from the moral realm.  This entails that a rational agent has no moral obligations to women.  Kant also correlates moral action with transcendental freedom, then claims such freedom is that on which one’s humanity hinges.  Since he denies women’s moral status, he denies their autonomy.  In doing so, he rejects their humanity.  So, in denying women’s rationality, Kant has excluded them from being human beings. 

Kant gives women access to humanity by virtue of legitimate relationship to a rational being.  That is, through their husbands, fathers, or masters, women come to obligate moral agents.  A husband has duties to his wife not in herself but in her relationship to him, because she is included under his humanity as a part of his household.  Once she is not under his control or leaves his sphere of influence, though, her status as a human being is lost and she becomes as property.  

Thomas Aquinas and Epistemological Justification of the Propositions of Faith

Eleonore Stump presents Aquinas’s account of faith in her exposition of his virtue theory, which has its roots in his epistemology.   She believes that Aquinas’s philosophy can provide a satisfying epistemological theory, which accurately accounts for epistemic justification of all sorts of belief.  However, it comes to light, in her exposition, that belief in the propositions of faith is acquired differently than most others; that is, voluntarily.  Given that this is the case, it is unclear whether they are epistemically justified.  Stump accounts for the justification of faith by reference to Thomistic metaphysics, especially his correlation of being and goodness.  It is essential to Thomas’s account that faith be voluntary.  The metaphysics that provide a foundation to his epistemology of faith, however, seem to undermine its voluntary status.     

Ritual is a Doxastic Practice
Despite recent interest in theological topics by analytical philosophers, the subject of religious ritual has mostly fallen outside the reach of philosophical research.  I maintain that ritual is an especially fruitful area for the investigation of epistemology.  Specifically, I believe ritual is a doxastic practice by which the practitioner gains religious knowledge.  As such, I propose to apply William Alston’s doxastic practice epistemology to Jewish ritual practice.  Alston makes the case that perception of God through Christian mystical experience can justify religious beliefs because such mystical perception is a doxastic practice, “a way of forming beliefs and epistemically evaluating them.”  Similarly, I maintain that Jewish ritual is a doxastic practice.  

In this article, I describe Alston’s account and argue that Jewish ritual practice meets his definition of a doxastic practice, by which I intend that ritual’s output beliefs can have positive epistemic status (PES).  I provide evidence for my proposal in the form of examples from the Jewish ritual of the Passover Seder, which appears to be a textbook example of both ritual and doxastic practice.  Ritual functions both by transmission of Jewish religious knowledge as well as by admission of new beliefs into the tradition.  Though Alston focuses on mystical perception as a function that provides for religious beliefs, doxastic practices include the non-perceptual.  If this is the case, then Jewish ritual is a doxastic practice, potentially providing positive epistemic status to the religious beliefs it transmits and generates.    

Faith:  An Intellectual Virtue

I propose a model of faith that fits the definition of an intellectual virtue and also answers the question of entitlement. To do so, I begin with Pascal’s wager, which can be read as a model of faith as doxastic venture. Pascal, however, does not seem fully convinced that faith can be an intellectual virtue, as he ultimately hopes to deaden the non-believers doubts, rather than providing a positive account in which one employs faith to gain religious knowledge. Using Pascal’s advice to the non-believer, William James expands this concept of faith into a true, if pragmatic, account of virtue.James improves the account of faith as a venture by adding an account of evidence; he makes the distinction between “spectator” and “purposively available” evidence, showing that such evidence is used in other areas and so is not special pleading on the part of religion. He also begins to answer the question of entitlement by proposing an ethical constraint on his theory, but does not give specifics enough for the theory to succeed. 

James Montmarquet, however, improves upon James’s theory by giving a rule by which religious beliefs can be epistemically justified; that is, he maintains that the evidence required for a belief is in direct proportion to the moral risk acting on the belief entails. John Bishop adds structure to the account by giving the necessary and sufficient conditions of the theory. By adding two requirements to Montmarquet’s Jamesian religious epistemology (those addressing the motivation for the belief, as well as its correspondence with correct morality), Bishop integrates the moral and epistemic virtues, fully answering the question of entitlement. Thus, I maintain that a responsibilist  account of faith as an intellectual virtue is possible. While questions remain (especially regarding the entwinement of religious beliefs and moral standards), it seems that faith can indeed be an intellectual virtue, and one that gains the faithful adherent religious knowledge.

Individuation of the Soul in Thomas Aquinas

Thomas's account of the soul's relationship to the body raises a question: how is the rational soul individuated after its separation from the human body at the time of death? The state of affairs, wherein the soul begins as a human state but persists after death, presents a particularly difficult problem for his theory. Thomas insists that the human soul can survive the death of the body, yet he also maintains that it is substantial form and the proper function of the human being. Thus, he must account for the form of a material object’s continuing to exist despite the cessation of that object’s existence. It is not immediately apparent that Thomas appropriately answers the question of individuation.  

Especially problematic for Thomas’s theory is the period after the death of the body and before its resurrection. Thomas appears to insist that matter individuates, but during this interim state, however, there is no individuating matter. If our souls are the form of the species human, and thus are identical, what prevents the individuated multiplicity of human souls from collapsing into a single, universal soul when their matter dissolves? Further, even absent this threat, is there anything that makes one soul different from that of another during the interim between first and resurrected life?

Thomas Aquinas, Teleology, and Evolution

Thomas Aquinas interprets Aristotelian naturalism to fit his philosophical and theological worldview. He accounts for nature by means of natural explanation, and his concept of teleology, which links function to operation, adds to our philosophical understanding of the natural world, including the scientific theory of evolution by genetic mutation and natural selection. He is even able to account for the existence of randomness in the world without weakening his theology. However, he also recognizes that necessarily immaterial concepts, such as the intention inherent in consciousness, exist and appropriately gives them immaterial explanations. A Thomist can certainly accept evolution, and even use Thomistic hylomorphism to explain the change of species; however, the ultimate existence of reality and its order depend completely on the final cause of the universe, a divine intellect. As such, a Thomist can never be an atheist, although an atheist may unproblematically adopt Thomistic natural teleology.  Thomistic philosophy is both strong enough to withstand the tension between religion and modern science, and can even provide philosophical accounts for scientific events and concepts.

Thomas Aquinas:  Soul-Body Connection and the Afterlife (Master's Thesis)

Thomas Aquinas nearly succeeds in addressing the persistent problem of the mind-body relationship by redefining the human being as a body-soul (matter-form) composite. This redefinition makes the interaction problem of substance dualism inapplicable, because there is no soul “in” a body. However, he works around the mind-body problem only by sacrificing an immaterial afterlife, as well as the identity and separability of the soul after death. Additionally, Thomistic psychology has difficulty accounting for the transmission of universals, nor does it seem able to overcome the arguments for causal closure.

Thomas constructs his distinct philosophy of the soul by interpreting Aristotelian concepts in light of Catholic doctrine. His epistemology and psychology elucidate the relationship of the soul to the body. He maintains that the soul is the form of the body, the bridge between the corporeal and incorporeal worlds, and the first act of the body. This thesis explains Aquinas's concept of the nature of the soul, especially how it allows for the interaction of the intellectual soul with the body, and describes the influence of religious doctrine on his viewpoint about the afterlife and resurrection.

Elucidation of the philosopher’s psychology demonstrates that, in concluding that the soul is the form of the body, Aquinas eliminates the possibility of an immaterial afterlife. The effect of this sacrifice is a difficulty in clearly explaining how an immaterial form, the soul, continues to exist without a material body. Additionally, Thomas’s philosophy of the soul cannot account for causal closure, which entails that all physical effects must have sufficient physical causes.

This work provides a new angle on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas by focusing on the nexus of his philosophy of mind and his account of the afterlife. The reconstruction of his view of the resurrection, as informed by his psychology, presents a new interpretation of the philosopher, shining fresh light on how these accounts inform one another. Additionally, this composition’s criticisms of Thomas afford a new outlook to Thomistic philosophy, challenging his explanation of how humans complete universal thought in light of contemporary understanding of the physical world.
SelectionFile type iconFile nameDescriptionSizeRevisionTimeUser