Spreading the Credit: Virtue Reliabilism and Weak Epistemic Anti-Individualism


Mainstream epistemologists have recently made a few isolated attempts to demonstrate the particular ways, in which specific types of knowledge are partly social. Two promising cases in point are Lackey’s (Learning from words: testimony as a source of knowledge. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008) dualism in the epistemology of testimony and Goldberg’s (Relying on others: an essay in epistemology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010) process reliabilist treatment of testimonial and coverage-support justification. What seems to be missing from the literature, however, is a general approach to knowledge that could reveal the partly social nature of the latter anytime this may be the case. Indicatively, even though Lackey (Synthese 158(3):345–361, 2007) has recently launched an attack against the Credit Account of Knowledge (CAK) on the basis of testimony, she has not classified her view of testimonial knowledge into any of the alternative, general approaches to knowledge. Similarly, even if Goldberg’s attempt to provide a process reliabilist explanation of the social nature of testimonial knowledge is deemed satisfactory, his attempt to do the same in the case of coverage-support justification does not deliver the requisite result. This paper demonstrates that CAK can in fact provide, pace Lackey’s renunciation of the view, a promising account of the social nature of both testimonial and coverage-supported knowledge. Additionally, however, it can display further explanatory power by also revealing the social nature of knowledge produced on the basis of epistemic artifacts. Despite their disparities, all these types of knowledge count as partly social in nature, because in all these cases, according to CAK, the epistemic credit for the individual agent’s true belief must spread between the individual agent and certain parts of her epistemic community. Accordingly, CAK is a promising candidate for providing a unified approach to several and, perhaps all possible, instances of what we may call ‘weak epistemic anti-individualism’ within mainstream epistemology: i.e., the claim that the nature of knowledge can occasionally be both social and individual at the same time.

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  1. 1.

    That is, the interesting observation that, on many occasions, we can come to know that p, because if not-p were the case we would have heard about it by now (by means of the informational channels provided by our community).

  2. 2.

    The Credit Account of Knowledge, as it will be here considered, is similar to what Lackey (2007) calls the ‘Deserving Credit View of Knowledge’. The only difference is that the former, contrary to the latter, is agnostic as to whether the credit S deserves for truly believing that p in cases of knowledge accounts for the additional value of knowledge over mere true belief. In other words, while the Credit Account of Knowledge claims that knowledge is creditable true belief, it says nothing about whether the relevant credit is of positive, negative or merely neutral value.

  3. 3.

    Hardwig (1985), in other words, hints towards strong epistemic anti-individualism. Likewise, Kusch (2002)—motivated partly by considerations similar to those of Hardwig—has put forward a communitarian epistemology. Hardwig’s arguments, however, as we will argue later on, are not sufficient for properly motivating strong epistemic anti-individualism. And, while there is no doubt that Kusch’s view is strongly anti-individualistic, his communitarian epistemology is rather alienated from mainstream epistemology such that juxtaposing it with what we here call weak epistemic anti-individualism—in mainstream epistemology—would be considerably misleading.

  4. 4.

    So far the Credit Account of Knowledge has only been spelled out in terms of (specific versions) of virtue reliabilism. In principle, however, there is no reason to think it is incompatible with any of the existing alternatives.

  5. 5.

    For some defenses of this intuition, see (Greco 1999, 2003, 2007; Plantinga 1993; Pritchard 2006, 2010a, b, 2012; Sosa 2007, 2011, 1988, 1988).

  6. 6.

    According to Greco (1999, 2003, 2010), “in virtue of” should be here understood in causal explanatory terms.

  7. 7.

    COGAweak stands for Weak COGnitive Agency. Despite the name, this is a particularly promising formulation of virtue reliabilism that is able to accommodate most (if not all) of the problems facing its alternatives. For extensive defenses, see (Pritchard 2010a, 2012; Palermos 2011a, 2014a, forthcoming. In fact, the only reasons it is supposed to be a ‘weak’ formulation of virtue reliabilism are technical ones: Firstly, it is a necessary (rather than both a necessary and sufficient) condition on knowledge: Several epistemologists hold that virtue reliabilism is a necessary component, but to have an adequate theory of knowledge, they argue, it must be further supplemented by either the safety or the sensitivity principle (see also fn. 15). For such an example, see (Pritchard 2012). Secondly, for reasons to be discussed in Sect. 3.1, notice that COGAweak requires that one’s cognitive success be significantly, as opposed to primarily, creditable to one’s cognitive agency.

  8. 8.

    As we shall see later on, there is disagreement on the extent to which one’s true belief should be creditable to one. For example, Lackey (2007)—an opponent of the view—argues that Greco’s Agent Reliabilism (1999, 2010) must be understood as requiring that one’s cognitive success be primarily creditable to one’s self. In contrast, Pritchard’s COGAweak demands that it only be significantly creditable to one’s cognitive agency.

  9. 9.

    The reason why a belief-forming process must be integrated to the agent’s cognitive character has to do with epistemic responsibility/subjective justification. For a detailed discussion of subjective justification/epistemic responsibility in terms of cognitive integration as well as in terms of the above (common-sense) intuitions, see Palermos 2014a.

  10. 10.

    Goldberg and Henderson (2006), however, argue that it is possible to stick to the letter of non-reductionism, while still assigning some of the epistemic burden to the hearer—in the form of a subconscious, monitoring-for-reliability condition.

  11. 11.

    Hume (2011) is often regarded (quite possibly unjustly) as the best-known supporter of reductionism regarding the epistemology of testimony. Amongst contemporary supporters of the view is Faulkner (2000, pp. 587–588) who claims that “it is doxastically irresponsible to accept testimony without some background belief in the testimony's credibility or truth”, and that “an audience is justified in forming a testimonial belief if and only if he is justified in accepting the speaker's testimony.” Similarly, Fricker (1994, pp. 149–150) claims that “the hearer should be discriminating in her attitude to the speaker, in that she should be continually evaluating him for trustworthiness throughout their exchange, in the light of the evidence, or cues, available to her”.

  12. 12.

    Following Lackey (2008), there are two relevant types of defeaters that could affect one’s acquisition of testimonial knowledge. First, there are psychological defeaters, which are beliefs or doubts that are had by the hearer and which indicate that the hearer’s beliefs are either false or unreliably formed. Notice that psychological defeaters may not be objectively correct. Second, there are normative defeaters, which are doubts or beliefs that the hearer ought to have, and which indicate that the hearer’s beliefs are either false or unreliably formed. In other words, normative defeaters are beliefs or doubts that the hearer should have (despite whether or not the hearer does actually have them), given the presence of certain available evidence.

  13. 13.

    Non-reductionism is traditionally associated with the work of Reid (1786). Some contemporary proponents of the view are Burge (1986, p. 47): “a person is entitled to accept as true something that is presented as true and is intelligible to him, unless there are stronger reasons not to do so”; Weiner (2003, p. 57): “we are justified in accepting anything that we are told unless there is positive evidence against doing so”; and Audi (1998, p. 142): “gaining testimonially grounded knowledge normally requires only having no reason for doubt about the credibility of the attester.”

  14. 14.

    (Pritchard 2009, p. 68). It is adapted from Lackey’s ‘Morris case’ (see Lackey 2007, p. 352).

  15. 15.

    Consider for example Anti-Luck Virtue Epistemology: S knows that p if and only if S’s safe belief that p is the product of her relevant cognitive abilities (such that her safe cognitive success is to a significant degree creditable to her cognitive agency) (Pritchard 2012). Again, in (Pritchard 2010b, p. 76) we read: “knowledge is safe belief that arises out of the reliable cognitive traits that make up one’s cognitive character, such that one’s cognitive success is to a significant degree creditable to one’s cognitive character”. The sensitivity principle is usually formulated as follows: If S knows that p, then S’s true belief that p, is such that, had p been false, S would not have believed p. The classic defenses of the sensitivity principle can be found in Dretske (1970) and Nozick (1981). The safety principle is usually understood thusly: if S knows that p, then S’s true belief that p, is such that S’s belief that p could not have easily been false. For recent defenses of the safety principle see Sosa (1999, 2000) and Pritchard (2002, 2008). For a very good discussion concerning the relation between the ability and the anti-luck intuition on knowledge see Pritchard (2012).

  16. 16.

    In cases of testimonial knowledge, for example, it may be argued (as we shall see below) that even though the hearer’s cognitive success is not primarily creditable to her (since at least a significant part of the credit must also go to the speaker for delivering a reliable report), the hearer’s belief is still true in virtue of the hearer’s cognitive abilities: It is on the basis of these abilities that the hearer spots an appropriate informant, rationally accepts the offered true report, and thereby ends up with the truth.

  17. 17.

    For more details on the types of inductively based positive reasons that could allow normal subjects to identify reliable (or unreliable) testimonial reports, see Lackey (2008, 182–183).

  18. 18.

    For more details on D3, see (Lackey 2008, ch. 7) and (Palermos 2011b).

  19. 19.

    For an excellent account of how an agent can satisfy conditions D5 and D6 in a critical yet unreflective (i.e. subconscious) “snooze” mode, see Fricker (2007) (especially ch. 3). To the contrary, Shieber (2012) argues that evidence from social psychology suggests that we should be skeptical about our abilities to be sensitive either to the trustworthiness or to the deceptiveness of our interlocutors. Still, however, satisfaction of D5 and D6 does not seem to hinge merely on the perceived trustworthiness of the speaker, but also on the reliability of the offered report itself, which depends or several other epistemic factors, such as understanding, plausibility, consistence, coherence and so on.

  20. 20.

    Sosa (2007) too has attempted to spell out the social nature of testimonial knowledge in CAK terms, by arguing that “testimonial knowledge can […] take the form of a belief whose correctness is attributable to a complex social competence only partially seated in that individual believer” (97). Nevertheless, Sosa further notes, such belief may still count as knowledge, “despite how little of the credit for the belief’s correctness may belong to the believer individually” (97). In contrast to Sosa’s assessment of testimonial knowledge, the point here is that, in cases of testimonial knowledge, the hearer does not deserve little but significant part of the epistemic credit, because it is the hearer that is responsible for believing truly, by having detected an appropriate informant and having rationally accepted the offered report. Though, admittedly, a significant part of the credit must again go to the speaker for having delivered a reliable report that shapes the content of the hearer’s belief, and in the absence of which the hearer would have to remain agnostic about the relevant matter. See also fn. 28.

  21. 21.

    For more details on how COGAweak can accommodate Lackey’s dualist account see Palermos 2011b.

  22. 22.

    Notice that Goldberg does not make his claim on the basis of the extended cognition hypothesis (Clark and Chalmers 1998; Clark 2008). Rather, Goldberg holds that testimony is a belief-forming process that epistemically “extends” to the cognitive capacities of the speaker. For Goldberg’s disavowal of the hypothesis of extended cognition, see (2010, ch. 5).

  23. 23.

    For a process reliabilist account of testimonial knowledge that is very similar to Goldberg’s (2010), see Shieber (2013). Michaelian (2014) is also very sympathetic to Goldberg’s process reliabilist account, though he attempts to radicalize Goldberg’s extendedness hypothesis, in order to also apply in cases where the reliability of one’s beliefs does not only rest on the reliability of other agents but on the reliability of artifacts as well. This may count as an improvement on Goldberg’s view, but it will also inherit the problems that Goldberg’s process reliabilism faces with respect to coverage-support (to which we are about to turn). Interestingly, in his (2009), Goldberg puts forward a predecessor to his (2010) argument not on the basis of process reliabilism, but on the basis of virtue reliabilism. Even there, however, Goldberg avoids associating virtue reliabilism with the attribution of epistemic credit, thereby distancing himself from CAK. Finally, following, Goldberg’s analysis of the cognitive processes that testimonial justification relies on, Green (2012) has attempted to provide an idiosyncratic credit account of knowledge that is specifically designed to account for testimonial knowledge: “CREDIT FOR US: If x knows that p, then the abilities that contribute to the formation and sustenance of x’s belief that p deserve primary credit (or something close to it) for x knowing p whether those abilities are contributed solely by x or also by other agents” (125). However appealing, one worry is that this is an ad hoc account that is motivated by and crafted to accommodate solely considerations pertaining to testimonial knowledge. Other than that, however, the main problem with Green’s account, and why we here need to opt for the traditional approach to CAK instead, is that, by failing to tightly tie the agent’s cognitive success (i.e., believing the truth of the matter) to the agent’s ability, it allows for testimonial knowledge whereby the hearer has done nothing to ensure the reliability of the speaker’s report: No one would count me as knowledgeable if Peter Higgs suddenly gave me an anonymous call to report the existence of the Higgs Boson (about which I don’t have the foggiest idea), even though, in such a case, credit for my cognitive success could in principle be attributed to both of us.

  24. 24.

    One possible worry about Goldberg’s account is that it may lead to counterintuitive results with respect to epistemic responsibility. Specifically, it is intuitive to think that there is a close correlation between doxastic justification and epistemic responsibility, such that the absence of the former entails the absence of the latter. In cases where the reliability of the speaker’s—but not the hearer’s—testimony-related processes are defective, however, Goldberg’s account rules that the hearer’s belief is doxastically unjustified all the while there being nothing epistemically culpable about the hearer himself. This appears to be a significant worry that needs to be clearly addressed before the ‘extendedness’ hypothesis can get off the ground.

  25. 25.

    Another way to put the same point is to note that, in the above quoted passage, Goldberg’s talk of the G-reliability of coverage-supported beliefs as being a matter of degree is not consistent with the rest of his analysis. For one thing, TTTCs can be either true or false; accordingly, coverage-supported beliefs can be either G-reliable or not-G-reliable—and not more or less G-reliable. Accordingly, with respect to any two very similar individuals that inhabit communities with different social practices and for any given domain of beliefs, the two individuals will either both be coverage-supported G-reliable in their respective, relevant beliefs at all—but they will possess different relevant TTTCs—or they will both have the same TTTCs, but at least one of them will be coverage supported G-unreliable in her respective, relevant beliefs.

  26. 26.

    See (Bach-y-Rita and Kercel 2003). Briefly, tactile visual substitution systems consist of a mini video camera that collects visual input, which is then converted into tactile stimulation on the back, tongue or forehead of (usually blind) subjects. On the basis of their practical understanding of sensorimotor contingencies (Noë 2004), subjects can then interact with the device by moving around, which allows them to perceive shapes and objects and orient themselves in space.

  27. 27.

    Remember that, according to Greco (1999, 2003, 2010), “in virtue of” is supposed to be understood in causal explanatory terms.

  28. 28.

    To preempt a possible worry here, it is important to note that, in cases of testimony, one cannot really advance a similar argument to the effect that, according to CAK, the speaker must be part of the hearer’s cognitive character. In contrast to cases of employing an artifact, in cases of testimony, one’s internal capacities are a crucial factor in detecting the truth: It is one’s internal capacities that explain how the hearer detects an appropriate informant and rationally accepts the offered report, thereby ending up with the truth of the matter . Of course, if we imagine a parallel to the broken artifact case above, say a case where the hearer is in a testimonially unfriendly environment, such that almost everyone around is a compulsive liar, it will indeed be very difficult for the hearer to gain any true beliefs. But if she somehow comes to eventually believe the truth on the basis of a speaker, this does not mean that her cognitive success is not down to her internal cognitive capacities; all the more so for having managed to detect the only person that could provide her with reliable information and for having rationally accepted their words, despite the epistemically hostile setting she finds herself in. In contrast to cases of employing epistemic artifacts, therefore, in cases of testimony, virtue reliabilists do not need to claim that the speaker must be part of the hearer’s cognitive character, because, in cases of testimony, it is solely the hearer’s internal capacities that explain how the hearer detects the truth.

  29. 29.

    It is worth noting that the idea of cognitive extension has also been invoked (Vaesen 2011) within the literature in order to argue against CAK. Nevertheless, as Vaesen notes himself, his argument relies on a weak notion of cognitive extension that philosophers of mind would more appropriately categorize under the heading of ‘embedded cognition’ (see also fn. 31). For responses to Vaesen’s arguments see (Kelp 2013) and Greco (2012), and for a rejoinder, see (Vaesen 2013). Moreover, but on a slightly different note, Green (2014) has attempted to wed CAK to the hypothesis of distributed cognition, according to which cognition may not only extend beyond an individual’s organism but it may even be distributed between several individuals at the same time, in order to account for team-like epistemic achievements.

  30. 30.

    Moreover, it has been elsewhere (Palermos 2011a, 2014a) argued that both theories put also forward the same broad, common-sense functionalist intuitions on what is required from a process to count as a cognitive ability. Briefly, both views state that the process must be (a) normal and reliable, (b) one of the agent’s habits/dispositions and (c) integrated into the rest of the agent’s cognitive character/system.

  31. 31.

    To use the standard terminology from philosophy of mind and cognitive science, it is very important to distinguish between the hypothesis of embedded cognition (HEMC) (Rupert 2004, 2009) and the hypothesis of extended cognition (HEC). Invoking what has come to be known as the ‘causal-constitution’ fallacy (Adams and Aizawa 2001, 2008), according to which proponents of HEC mistake a causal for a constitutive dependence between the agent and her artifacts, proponents of HEMC suggest that we should rather settle for the less provocative view that the mind is merely embedded rather than extended to its environment. As noted above, however, several proponents of HEC have replied that the presence of non-linear relations between the agent and her artifacts provides a clear criterion for distinguishing between HEC and HEMC as well as putting the ‘causal-constitution’ fallacy to rest. For an overview of the debate and a detailed approach to how we can distinguish between HEC and HEMC as well as avoid several other worries with respect to HEC (including the ‘cognitive bloat’ worry and the ‘causal-constitution’ fallacy), see 2014b.

  32. 32.

    See also (Alfano 2014, forthcoming) for very interesting discussions on further potential connections between virtue epistemology and the extended cognition and extended mind hypotheses.

  33. 33.

    Making observations through a telescope can clearly qualify as a case of cognitive extension as it is a dynamical process that involves ongoing reciprocal interactions between the agent and the artifact. Moving the telescope around, while adjusting the lenses, generates certain effects (e.g., shapes on the lens of the telescope), whose feedback drives the ongoing cognitive loops along. Eventually, as the process unfolds, the coupled system of the agent and his telescope is able to identify—that is, see—the target satellite.

  34. 34.

    To be clear, “epistemic community”, as it is here intended, refers only to a sum of individual epistemic agents and not to any entity that is over and above that sum.

  35. 35.

    Driving the car then, plays the role of the overall extended belief-forming process.

  36. 36.

    For a detailed argument on how we can reveal the social nature of several aspects of scientific knowledge by combining virtue reliabilism with active externalism, see Palermos (forthcoming). For an account of the epistemology of scientific artifacts from a philosopher’s of science point of view see (van Fraasen 2001, 2008). See also (Toon 2014).

  37. 37.

    It should be noted that there is no problem with the act of epistemically grouping all these cases in such a way, even if, in addition to all the obvious differences of mere physical implementation between the above belief-forming processes, they also differ in other epistemically relevant ways. For example, one epistemically relevant way to differentiate between the above processes is to accentuate the role that one’s society plays with respect to the relevant mechanisms of forming one’s belief: Specifically, given the above analysis, in cases of coverage-supported beliefs, one’s society plays merely the role of an enabling condition for one’s belief-forming process to exist; in cases of testimony, one’s society provides one with the information one ends up believing; and in cases of knowledge on the basis of epistemic artifacts, one’s society is the source of one’s belief-forming process itself. Similarly, another epistemically relevant way to differentiate between these cases is in terms of how one’s evidence is associated with one’s epistemic community: In coverage support, the agent relies on the community for not providing relevant evidence; in cases of testimony the agent relies on the society for providing him with relevant evidence; and in cases of instrument-mediated belief, the agent relies on the community having built some instrument, indicating that, occasionally, there must be relevant evidence ‘out there’ to be accessed via the target instrument. Despite all these possible ways to (epistemically) differentiate between these cases, however, the fact remains: In all of them, the agents’ cognitive successes are partly creditable to their epistemic communities, allowing them, according to CAK, to all qualify as clear cases of weak epistemic anti-individualism.

  38. 38.

    This is the standard formulation of internalism, known as accessibilism. Roughly stated: Whenever one knows that p, then one can become aware by reflection of one’s knowledge basis for p. For more details, see (BonJour 1985; Chisholm 1977; Steup 1999).

  39. 39.

    Of course this is going to be no easy task, and its feasibility will largely depend on whether one is a reductionist or anti-reductionist about testimonial knowledge. While it is beyond the scope of the present paper to expand on this issue, on one hand, the combination of epistemic internalism and reductionism about testimonial justification is rather problematic, because internalism has a hard time accounting for inductive knowledge (Greco 1999). On the other hand, prima facie, epistemic internalism and anti-reductionism about testimonial justification is a rather unfitting match. See also fn. 40.

  40. 40.

    Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say here that internalist conditions on knowledge are likely to be tied to strong individualism, are they not to be transformed beyond recognition. For an extended discussion of how both access and mentalist (Conee and Feldman 2001) internalism can be given an anti-individualistic reading, see (Carter and Palermos 2014).


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I am very thankful to Adam Carter and Duncan Pritchard for feedback in previous drafts of this paper. I am also grateful to two anonymous referees for Erkenntnis for their very insightful comments. Research into the area of this paper was supported by the AHRC-funded ‘Extended Knowledge’ Project, based at the Eidyn research centre, University of Edinburgh.

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Palermos, S.O. Spreading the Credit: Virtue Reliabilism and Weak Epistemic Anti-Individualism. Erkenn 81, 305–334 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-015-9741-2

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  • True Belief
  • Gettier Case
  • Epistemic Community
  • Doxastic Justification
  • Cognitive Success