Recent debates on epistemic authority have largely focused on which epistemic skills and virtues agents must possess and activate in order to identify and rationally respond to epistemic authorities.Footnote 27 But the foregoing discussion also puts a different question on the agenda: if certain authorities have the ability to guide interlocutors in their quest for understanding, then which skills and competences does this require?
We propose that certain intellectual virtues will play a role here, including traditional ones such as intellectual thoroughness, fair-mindedness, or perseverance. There is also another epistemic virtue however, which, though largely neglected in the literature, plays a crucial role in this context. We call it epistemic empathy.Footnote 28 In a first approximation, epistemic empathy is the ability—or, if exercised, the mental state—of putting oneself in someone else’s epistemic position and of inspecting certain areas of it, thereby learning how the world looks from that perspective. To avoid misunderstandings: Our claim is not that epistemic authorities can always fully achieve this. Typically, there will be limits, be it because the epistemic distance between the interlocutors is too great, be it for principled reasons concerning particular experiences or perspectives of the agent that are hard or impossible for her to share with those who lack such perspectives. So, depending on the interlocutors, attempts to empathize epistemically may succeed to a greater or lesser extent, and certain perspectives may even in principle be inaccessible to outsiders. All this does not undermine the claim, however, that epistemic empathy exists, and that attempts to engage in it will often constitute a desirable social-epistemic goal.
Characterizations of empathy vary widely. A major divide separates views that focus on affective phenomena and those that construe empathy more broadly in terms of emulating other peoples’ cognitive (but not necessarily emotional) perspectives. For example, Karsten Stueber (2006, p. 28) argues that empathy is “a form of inner or mental imitation for the purpose of gaining knowledge of other minds”. More recently Justin Steinberg (2014, p. 50) says, similarly, that “empathy involves taking up the perspective of another, which means understanding something about the content of another’s mind.” Our proposal is in line with such more general approaches that allow for non-affective forms of empathy. Moreover, our specific notion of epistemic empathy must be understood broadly. In an Elgin-style framework, for example, the relevant areas of a noetic network (and thus possible targets of epistemic empathy) include not only knowledge and belief, but also commitments, acceptances, various kinds of experience, methods of inquiry, cognitive goals and values, as well as relations among these items, such as relations of support, conflict, and so forth. Such items too are in the target set of (acts of) epistemic empathy.Footnote 29
Importantly, the epistemic empathizer need not endorse the view that she empathizes with. Instead, she preserves cognitive and evaluative distance, remains aware of (and typically stands by) her own view, which she is in a position to compare with the view she empathizes with. For example, if an agent believes that p whereas an authority believes that not-p, the latter’s epistemic empathy does not involve her switching to the belief that p.Footnote 30 Instead, in such cases the empathizer identifies, but does not adopt, the agent’s belief and sees how it is embedded in the agent’s system. Along similar lines, we can understand what a false theory states despite the theory’s being false. Here, too, we realize how things look from the perspective of the system, but do not endorse it. This does not rule out, of course, that the epistemic empathizer also shares attitudes with her interlocutor. For example, while disagreeing with him about whether p, she may nonetheless share his epistemic goals, the belief that q, or his acceptance of r. Moreover, like such objects of epistemic empathy, nor are the attitudes that constitute the authority’s epistemic empathy restricted to beliefs. They too can be of various kinds. They may consist of (justified, or reliable, rational, apt…) beliefs, partial beliefs or credences, attitudes of mere acceptance, knowledge and, of course, understanding.
Empathy is standardly taken to be a success concept, and epistemic empathy is no exception. Compare affective empathy: If you feel bereft on your neighbor’s behalf because her partner has left her, yet rather than being unhappy about this herself she is in very good spirits, you do not empathize with her. Your mental state has missed its target, which is her mental state. That said, empathy is not an all-or-nothing affair. An epistemic empathizer may correctly represent some aspects of her interlocutor’s epistemic profile but misconstrue others.Footnote 31
This picture can be refined. Epistemic empathy can be local or extended and shallow versus deep. It is local insofar as it concerns only certain regions of an epistemic system. The more subsystems the authority empathizes with, the farther her empathetic insight extends. Moreover, if the authority’s empathy encompasses relatively few aspects of a given agent’s noetic system or subsystem, her empathy is shallow; her empathy is deep to the extent that she correctly represents more aspects. This observation also sheds light on the fact that some epistemic authorities are better than others, and on the fact that some are better in some respects, whereas others are better in other respects. An important comparative dimension is how local or extended, and how shallow or deep, a given authority’s epistemic empathy is. If you can choose between consulting someone who appears to have shallow and local epistemic empathy with you, thereby understanding you only in a shallow and local fashion, and someone who appears to bear deep and extended epistemic empathy towards you, it might be wise to go for the latter.
Here are some illustrations of how epistemic empathy works. Take our flamingos-in-December-at-Lake-Constance example (which is inspired by a true incident). You call the local ornithological society and inform them that you observed what appeared to you to be a flock of flamingos on the Swiss shore of Lake Constance. “However,” you remark, “I am pretty sure that wild flamingos don’t live on Lake Constance, so might they have escaped from a nearby zoo?” The expert replies that, yes, Lake Constance was previously not a flamingo habitat and that, indeed, wild flamingos have never before lived in Switzerland or this far north in Europe. “Yet,” she explains, “this winter a flock of wild flamingos has settled at Lake Constance; we know that they did not escape from a zoo. Our experts believe that their presence can be explained by climate change. Nowadays the winters at the Lake are much milder than in the past.” What the authority has done is extrapolate several features of the questioner’s epistemic system from what the latter explicitly reveals, including his reasons for disbelieving that the flamingos at Lake Constance came from the wild. For example, the authority premises her response on the hypothesis that the interlocutor believes that wild flamingos still don’t live that far north in Europe and that they are fit for areas with a much milder climate than today’s Switzerland. Yet, the authority herself neither shares these reasons nor the belief or conjecture they support (namely that “the flamingos at Lake Constance have escaped from a nearby zoo”). She has superior knowledge and understanding to her interlocutor, and in light of what she gathers about his noetic system (including that he is aware of the basics of climate change, which she does not bother explaining to him), she provides him with information he needs to update it and to improve his understanding of the phenomenon at issue. In this case, the interlocutor’s update may involve connecting two previously unrelated elements of his noetic network, namely the perceptual data and beliefs he has about the flamingos, on the one hand, and what he knows about climate change on the other.
Next consider some examples from fiction. A famous epistemic authority is Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is regularly a few steps ahead of his friend Dr. Watson (let alone other characters). Sometimes Holmes and Watson share the same evidence, and yet Holmes interprets and explains it with more skill and explanatory creativity. Other times, Holmes uses better methods of inquiry or is more observant in collecting evidence in the first place. Holmes often explains to Watson which clues suggest which hypothesis, and in so doing he projects himself into Watson’s less sophisticated thought patterns and guides him, by anticipating how Watson will reason, through noetic processes that eventually lead Watson to form the correct view about the case at hand. (Sometimes Watson remains clueless in spite of Holmes’s prompting and Holmes just has to give him the answer. In such cases, Holmes fails to serve as a source of understanding.) Such examples are not confined to lighter fiction. Consider the intellectual interactions between the philosopher and Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his intellectual and spiritual student, the Benedictine novice Adso of Melk, in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Step by step, the two discover what lies behind the mysteries and murders that haunt the Benedictine abbey they are visiting. (It turns out that the disturbing events are connected with the fact that the abbey’s labyrinthine library contains the only surviving copy of the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics.) Adso often comes up with various incomplete or erroneous hypotheses, yet even when he doesn’t explicitly lay them out, William tends to know or anticipate them. What is going on is that William, who is a great intellectual authority for Adso and more generally for the relevant epistemic community (of 14th century monks and theologians), enjoys great empathetic insight into Adso’s overall noetic system. William guides Adso through processes of correcting and updating false assumptions, and leads him to see the relevance of certain data that he misinterpreted or overlooked and to draw the right conclusions.Footnote 32
A fourth example comes from philosophy itself. The ways in which William relates to Adso have Socratic features. In Sect. 3 we mentioned Socrates, whom Plato portrays as someone who, though often claiming ignorance about whatever philosophical question arises, has the intellectual and dialectical skills to show his interlocutors where their reasoning goes astray. We said above that these include the skills to destroy the agents’ (especially the sophist’s) hubris and their conviction that they know what they are talking about. We may add here that Socrates’ effectiveness in his elenchus—his art of refuting his respondents’ poorly grounded claims and getting them to concede the incoherence of their views—often involves anticipating the cognitive dynamics in which they will engage. This in turn requires the ability to project himself into their minds. After pinning down some claim p that his interlocutor endorses, Socrates often anticipates additional beliefs and further commitments on the latter’s part, only to demonstrate in a next step, when the interlocutor articulates these views, that they are inconsistent with p. Although (and because) this process is to some extent destructive, Socrates’ insights into his interlocutors’ noetic system, and his ability to convey them to his interlocutors, enable the latter to make progress in understanding.
Socrates also exercises the intellectual skill of what Watson, J.C (2018) and Watson, L (2018) calls the skill of good questioning. However, whereas Watson considers this skill from the perspective of agents who wish to gather information and use it for themselves (an important topic), in a Socratic dialogue the epistemic authority uses it to foster understanding in others. And an important condition for this application of the skill of good questioning, it seems, is the ability to exercise epistemic empathy. Only if you can project yourself into another agent’s thinking in the ways we have outlined—only if you can construct a sufficiently detailed picture of the interlocutor’s noetic network, with both its good parts and its problematic areas—will you be able to ask questions that prompt her to improve that system and bring it into equilibrium.
In Sect. 4 we distinguished experts from authorities, but conceded that the two classes overlap.Footnote 33 We can add now that an (expert) authority who is able to guide her interlocutors in their attempts to achieve or improve their understanding, will be epistemically empathetic. Note that we are not claiming that epistemic empathy is necessary for producing understanding in one way or another. We maintain instead that epistemic empathy is necessary for having the ability (deliberately and reliably) to produce understanding in others.Footnote 34 Surely an authority could produce understanding by happy accident and without epistemic empathy. Yet in such cases, this result would not be attributable to the authority’s ability to guide or teach her interlocutor. (Abilities are standardly construed as dispositions or potentialities which, in the right circumstances, reliably produce certain results.)
The above examples illustrate this point. William of Baskerville may be an expert in philosophy, theology, church dogma, and so on. But he would not be a systematic, reliable source of understanding for Adso if he could not epistemically empathize with him. Similar observations apply to our Holmes and Socrates examples. Arguably, these agents too have special expertise. Yet without epistemic empathy, they could not teach and guide their interlocutors in improving their understanding. Consider the following analogy. Imagine a vast network of water reservoirs, akin, e.g., to a system of Nepalese rice terraces, most of which are connected through a complex channel network. Some of the reservoirs are filled, others contain some water but are not full, and other areas are entirely dry—either the higher-level reservoirs and the channels and ditches that would fill them are dry or closed off. Suppose that the system is so large and complex that the farmer who is in charge, though he tries hard to fill as many lakes and ponds as possible so as to keep as many areas as possible fertile, can only progress slowly and laboriously on his own. Many fields remain dry, many remain with little if any water, various channels are blocked, and watering other fields would require building new channels from scratch. One day, an experienced fellow-farmer visits the site and offers help. She brings maps of the whole area and realizes where things go wrong. Importantly, she has the competence to identify areas of minor or major significance and to judge which operations would be most effective. Some actions will have an “explosive” effect: when certain channels are opened, large and important areas of the whole territory become flooded or imbued simultaneously. We may add that, since the area is vast but time is short, during each visit the visitor can only inspect and improve limited parts of the territory. This picture illustrates the holistic way in which epistemic authorities operate when exercising epistemic empathy. The lakes, we may suppose, correspond to significant beliefs, important commitments, central acceptances, or pivotal epistemic goals of their interlocutors; ponds correspond to less significant subsystems, and the channels and ditches illustrate support relations. An authority may initially gain insight only into limited parts of an interlocutor’s system, but is in a position to extrapolate where the most effective work can be done in order to pursue the cognitive goal of filling and connecting cognitively “dry” areas.
To summarize what we have argued so far: epistemic empathy is a social-epistemic virtue, because it helps improve people’s epistemic situation (as opposed e.g. to their emotional situation). Moreover, it is a social epistemic virtue, because its primary or immediate target is other peoples’ epistemic states and episodes.Footnote 35
Epistemic empathy is a social epistemic virtue because it constitutes an epistemic excellence. Corresponding to different traditions in virtue epistemology, this may be spelled out in different ways. According to virtue reliabilists such as Ernest Sosa or John Greco, epistemic virtues are cognitive faculties or abilities the exercise of which reliably promotes epistemic ends. Traditional examples are vision, memory, introspection, rational intuition, etc. Whereas such faculties have individualistic epistemic targets, however, epistemic empathy is essentially a social virtue, since it is concerned with other people’s intellectual condition. As for responsibilist traditions in virtue epistemology, as influentially developed, e.g., by Linda Zagzebski, conceive of epistemic virtues not only as reliable faculties, but also as intellectual character traits that agents can deliberately influence. Whereas reliabilist virtues can operate sub-personally, character traits are so-called personal excellences. However, as Jaeson Baehr (VE) has argued, both kinds of virtues contribute to our overall intellectual wellbeing. If this is so, the contrast between the two traditions is less dramatic than meets the eye. What matters for present purposes is that epistemic empathy can also combine both sorts of virtue. It is a competence which, if operating under the right conditions, reliably furthers the corresponding epistemic goals (in some standard reliabilist sense); but it is also a personal excellence that agents can deliberately train and cultivate in their attempts to form their intellectual character.