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Can performance epistemology explain higher epistemic value?

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Judgment and Agency contains Sosa’s latest effort to explain how higher epistemic value of the sort missing from an unwitting clairvoyant’s beliefs might be a special case of performance normativity, with its superior value following from truisms about performance value. This paper argues that the new effort rests on mistaken assumptions about performance normativity. Once these mistaken assumptions are exposed, it becomes clear that higher epistemic value cannot be a mere special case of performance normativity, and its superiority cannot be guaranteed just by truisms about performance value. Sections 1 and 2 set the stage, clarifying the thesis and the relevant features of Sosa’s strategy, and explaining why the strategy requires the mistaken assumptions. Section 3 presents a dilemma for the new account of higher epistemic value. Section 4 deepens the case for one of the horns. Section 5 takes stock and draws some broader morals.

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  1. ‘Performance normativity’ is Sosa’s term. ‘Performance epistemology’ is a helpful new name from Vargas (2016) for what has longer been called ‘reliabilist virtue epistemology’.

  2. See, for example, Sosa (2007: p. 90), (2011: p. 59), (2015: p. 49), and (2017: p. 110).

  3. Ridge (2013: p. 198) suggests this interpretation, and says in note 19 that ‘Sosa has confirmed this in conversation’. I have independently confirmed this interpretation in p.c. Sosa indicated that his only reservation about using Geach’s notion of attributive value is that he wants to avoid making semantic claims or suggesting that his project is to understand ordinary language expressions of epistemic evaluations; the attributive/predicative distinction is, of course, a distinction concerning certain uses of ‘good’, ‘better’, etc.

  4. Performance epistemology can be combined with other views about the fundamental aim of belief, like Williamson (2000)’s view that the aim of belief is knowledge; for this version of performance epistemology, see Miracchi (2015a). Performance epistemologies with this conception of the fundamental aim of belief will, however, be less helpful if one is interested in giving a traditional analysis of knowledge.

  5. See, e.g., Pritchard (2012) and Kelp (2013).

  6. Some propose hybrid theories that incorporate themes of both reliabilist and responsibilist virtue epistemology at a basic level; Greco (2010), for example, gives an account of epistemic justification that appeals both to reliable cognitive abilities and to epistemic responsibility (without explaining it as a manifestation of the former). These theorists in effect concede that there is a dimension of epistemic evaluation that cannot be understood as a mere special case of performance normativity. The project of Sosa (2015) is, if successful, a major improvement, since it derives responsibilist themes from a unified performance epistemology.

  7. There are doubtless several different kinds of HEV that the beliefs of the benighted lack. My minimal claim is that there is some HEV that performance epistemology doesn’t adequately explain.

  8. See Sosa (2011: pp. 7, 9, and 10) for varying glosses to this effect.

  9. Sosa (2011: p. 61) also claimed that when belief is understood as a disposition to affirm, it has the aim of aptness as well as the aim of truth: ‘Knowledgeable belief aims at truth, and is accurate or correct if true. It has accordingly the induced aim of attaining that objective. Such belief aims therefore not just at accuracy (truth), but also at aptness (knowledge). A belief that attains both aims, that of truth and that of knowledge, seems for that reason better than one that attains merely the first.’

  10. While Sosa uses the word ‘awareness’ in the second paragraph, he is not assuming that the guiding state must have non-trivial phenomenology, nor that it is at the same judgmental level as the affirmation it guides; the relevant awareness may simply be doxastic awareness, and indeed of a functional sort. Elsewhere Sosa clearly allows that the relevant guiding state could simply be animal knowledge: ‘Performing with full aptness would normally require knowing (at least at the animal level) that one would then perform aptly’ (2017: p. 78). And Sosa has confirmed that this is the correct interpretation of his use of ‘awareness’ in p.c.

  11. Consider Sosa (2015: p. 54; my bold): ‘Functional, perceptual seemings are passive states that we cannot help entering. But endorsement of them remains volitional, agential. And such endorsement is required for those functional states to ascend to the level of fully reflective, judgmental knowledge, the level to which the Pyrrhonists aspire, in which they are followed by Descartes.’ In reading a draft of the book, I urged Sosa not to make this claim, and he does later back off (see Sosa 2015: p. 94).

  12. If it isn’t clear from my wording, note that I don’t deny that principles of this form might hold for other forms of normativity. Indeed, the point is that performance normativity seems different.

  13. For the terminology that follows, see Sosa (2015: p. 124), though note that he subsumes attempts under aimings (or at least treats them as having the normative profile of aimings):

    1. 1.

      Performances are of two sorts: (a) deeds, and (b) aimings. Kicking one’s spouse in one’s sleep is a deed, an attributable doing (unlike squashing a rabbit at the end of one’s fall off a cliff), but is not an aiming, something one aimed to do.

    2. 2.

      Aimings are of two sorts: (a) functional or teleological (whether biologically, socially, or psychologically, whether by a whole animal or by a subsystem), and (b) intentional.

    3. 3.

      Moving to epistemology, consider alethic affirmations, aimed at truth. An intentional action can have more than one end, constituting more than one attempt. So, an attempt constitutively involves a particular aim. It is this distinctive aim that makes it subject to the AAA normative structure of such attempts, which can be accurate, adroit, and/or apt.

  14. Sosa (2015: p. 210).

  15. See Sosa (2015: p. 125), where he attributes the example to me in note 15.

  16. See the critique of Baehr (2012) in Ch. 2.

  17. See Sosa (2015: pp. 124–8).

  18. See Sosa (2015: p. 126).

  19. Sosa (2015: p. 127).

  20. See Sosa (2015: pp. 124–5) for an emphasis on aimings.

  21. Sosa (2015: p. 210).

  22. I take constitutive and attributive normativity to be cognate, since the standards of evaluation relevant to whether something is a good F in the attributive sense are standards given by the nature or constitution of Fs, in a broad sense that includes their essential function.

  23. Most of the 690 results for the former appear in New Age literature, and many of the 2200 results for the latter are irrelevant ones in which ‘skillful’ is in fact modifying a later noun (e.g., ‘skillful policy advocates’ and ‘skillful policy researchers’).

  24. Mark well that I am not claiming here that good plans cannot be ineptly executed. I am claiming only that a plan is only as skillful as its perfect execution would be skillful.

  25. To be sure, plan formation can be evaluated for skill. But knowledge is not akin to plan formation. Even if it literally were a performance, it would resemble a plan’s execution, not its formation. And the skateboarder’s execution of the plan to perform that trick—the one the skateboarder performed and planned to perform (admittedly without appreciating its fineness)—manifests perfect skill, not upgraded by prior skillful plan formation. In any case, the invocation of policies is intended to accommodate the worry found in Chrisman (2012) that knowledge is a state that can be merely stored, as Sosa stressed to me in raising a worry in the ballpark of Chrisman’s.

  26. See (2017: p. 71): ‘Judgment and knowledge itself are forms of intentional action.’

  27. Compare Korsgaard (2009: pp. 8–14)’s distinction between acts and actions, where acts are behaviors and actions are acts-performed-for-a-particular-reason.

  28. See esp. Sosa (2015: p. 82).

  29. See Sosa (2015: pp. 107–8).

  30. Sosa (2017: p. 78), parenthetical italics mine.

  31. Note furthermore that the mere fact that Sosa sometimes describes the guiding state as a kind of ‘awareness’ doesn’t imply that he is building in something with the phenomenology that is intuitively missing in the clairvoyance case. Apart from the fact that this would not help to explain why such awareness is needed for full skillfulness (which is intuitively implausible), Sosa (2015: p. 79) is explicit in a footnote that the second-order ‘awareness’ that guides one’s affirmation to aptness isn’t meant necessarily to involve conscious phenomenology: ‘[T]his awareness need be neither conscious nor temporally prior.’

  32. Kelp (2014) makes a point kindred to the following, albeit about an earlier edition of Sosa’s view.

  33. Admittedly, some major figures in the internalist tradition emphasize the higher order. But mentalists and acquaintance internalists do not (or need not); cf. Fumerton (1988, 1995).

  34. Sosa (2015: p. 108).

  35. Sosa (2015: p. 107).

  36. Believing that p on the basis of the evident fact that p needn’t be circular, as I note in Sylvan (2016: p. 366): ‘Note that believing that p on the basis of the fact that p seems fine in some cases. What, for example, justifies my belief that I’m in pain? Plausibly, the sheer fact that I’m in pain. Even if one does not adopt this model, it is a natural model....This example suggests a deeper response. Not all responses to reasons are inferential. When one comes to believe one is in pain upon encountering that fact, one forms the belief in direct, non-inferential response to the fact. One doesn’t move in a circle because one’s process of belief-formation lacks inferential steps. If a fact can be one’s reason in this way rather than via inference, [we] needn’t permit moving in a circle.’

  37. I use “sensitivity” in an ordinary dispositional sense, not Nozick’s. Cf. Briggs and Nolan (2012).

  38. See Sylvan and Sosa (2018).

  39. One could also impose more demanding subjective constraints on compliance with good reasons. But to do so would likely involve abandoning pure performance epistemology. The account of compliance that is structurally analogous to the account of knowledge is one on which compliance consists in success—i.e., having an operative reason that corresponds to a normative reason—which manifests a skill to succeed so understood.

  40. I thank Bob Beddor, John Greco, Chris Kelp, Elselijn Kingma, Matthew McGrath, Conor McHugh, Lisa Miracchi, Simon Rippon, Mona Simion, Ernest Sosa, Ralph Wedgwood, Daniel Whiting, Fiona Woollard, two anonymous reviewers for this journal, and others in audiences at KU Leuven and the 2017 Bled Epistemology Conference for helpful comments on this paper.


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Sylvan, K.L. Can performance epistemology explain higher epistemic value?. Synthese 197, 5335–5356 (2020).

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