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The Table Video

John Greco

Intellectual Humility and Social Epistemology

Professor of Philosophy / Leonard and Elizabeth Eslick Chair in Philosophy, St. Louis University
June 2, 2017

Contemporary epistemology has moved away from the epistemic individualism of internalism and evidentialism, in favor of externalism, virtue epistemology, and social epistemology. This paper explores how these various movements in epistemology are related to the notion of intellectual humility. The central idea is that, whereas intellectual pride is characterized by ideals and illusions of self-sufficiency, intellectual humility is characterized by a realistic estimation of one’s own abilities and an appreciation of one’s epistemic dependence on others.


The title has changed a little bit. Title that I had up there was perfectly fine, this is a little bit more informative. Intellectual Humility and Contemporary Epistemology. And this turns in to be a critique of what I’ll call epistemic individualism, evidentialism and internalism.

So, the idea is that the main trend that I see in contemporary epistemology, which I wanna look at, is a trend away from conceiving knowledge as the product of a self sufficient, autonomous, individual investigator, and more the product of, more of a social achievement. More the product of investigators located within a intellectual community.

So for reasons we’ll see in a minute, and which might already be obvious, I think this in itself is a kind of move towards embracing intellectual humility. But what I wanna do in this talk is to associate two other trends in epistomology with this broader trend. There’s also been a move away from what you might call evidentialism and a move away from what you might call internalism. And so we’ll talk about what those mean, and I want to associate those trends with this broader trend of a move toward social epistomology.

And by the way, I think that these are important for religious epistomology as well, I think that some of the problems and some of the problems, and obstacles, road blocks that you see when you are in an overly individualistic frame, the problems you get in general epistomology you get the same problems in religious epistomology. And so I think a social turn in religious epistomology is overdue and would be welcome. I’m not gonna talk about that now, but you can sort of fill in how that would go for yourselves.

Okay, so the first thing I wanna do is characterize humility and intellectual humility. And I use the word characterize to avoid the notion of a definition, so I’m not about getting a very strict and exact definition of humility or intellectual humility. I’m happy if these characterizations just like, make humility familiar, okay? So the way I think of humility is that humility is first and foremost juxtaposed to pride. Or if you wanna acknowledge proper pride, then we could say juxtaposed with pridefulness. And intellectual humility can then be juxtaposed with intellectual pride. So here’s seven related characteristics of pride. And then this will give us a handle on humility and then intellectual humility. I should have some idea about what the time is here, so. Okay. Okay, so one characteristic of pride is overestimating one’s abilities and underestimating one’s limitations. So we heard about that from Jason. Another related characteristic of pride is overestimating one’s own contributions to one’s successes. And this is very much related to the third characteristic, which is underestimating and therefore undervaluing the contributions of others, okay?

That’s closely related with underestimating one’s dependence on others, and that underestimating of dependence on others is related to illusions of self-sufficiency, okay? Now, illusions of self-sufficiency, that’s clear enough. But I also want to, I also want to acknowledge another aspect of pride, and that would be not just illusions of self-sufficiency but ideals of self-sufficiency. And with related ideals of control and invulnerability.

So, the prideful person not only thinks that he or she is more self-sufficient than he or she really is, but they really want to be self-sufficient. And that’s something to be strived for. And that’s very related to striving for control and striving for invulnerability. And that goes with the notion of autonomy, that contrasts or juxtaposes individual autonomy with dependence on others. So, somehow a dependence on others is a threat to your own autonomy.

Now, if that’s how we’re understanding pride and if humility is to be contrasted with pride, then humility can be characterized in terms of a realistic estimation of one’s abilities and limitations, and I’m happy to go with Jason there and just scratch off abilities. Humility can be characterized in terms of a realistic estimation of one’s limitations and contributions.

A realistic appreciation of the contributions of others and one’s dependence on others, and the rejection of self-sufficiency as an ideal, okay? Intellectual pride, intellectual humility, can then be understood accordingly. So you would then characterize intellectual humility in terms of a realistic estimation of one’s intellectual limitations and intellectual contributions to one’s own intellectual successes. A realistic appreciation of the way in which one is dependent epistemically or intellectually on others.

Okay, you could think of this enlightenment ideal of an individual self-sufficient autonomous knower as a kind of picture of intellectual pride or pridefulness, and a turn towards a better appreciation of the knower as embedded and dependent on intellectual community as a move towards a more humble view of one’s intellectual accomplishments. Okay, so now I’m gonna have to bring a chair over here ’cause I have back issues. I can’t stand for very long, so I’m just gonna lean against the back of this chair. So, now to define epistemic individualism. Well, it’s easy enough.

Epistemic individualism is basically a position in epistomology sort of characterized by that enlightenment ideal of the individual autonomous knower which regards the epistemic, this is quoting now from Sanford Goldberg, in a book called “Anti-Individualism”, “Epistemic anti-individualism regards “the epistemic justification of a subject’s beliefs “as sometimes at least depending on features of “the cognitive and linguistic acts of other subjects “or social peers.”

Or, “the ascription of justification and knowledge “to a subject S sometimes at least depends on factors “pertaining to the cognitive lives of subjects “other than S.” So, that’s how he’s defining epistemic anti-individualism. So, epistemic individualism, then is the thesis that epistemic justification of a subject’s belief never depends on features of the cognitive and linguistic acts of the subject’s social peers, the ascription of justification and knowledge to a subject S never depends on factors pertaining to the cognitive lives of subjects other than S.

Okay, so again, epistemic individualism embraces the ideal of self-sufficiency in the intellectual realm. On that position, positive epistemic status is wholly determined by the resources of the individual. Now, I think Sandy’s characterization is a little off. Because epistemic individualism isn’t so crazy to think that you’re never dependent on what other people teach you or what other people tell you in terms of testimony, et cetera. Sometimes I know things because you know things, and I, oh thanks.

And I benefit from that knowledge. So we have to tweak it a little bit. And I want to consider an economic analogy, okay? There’s a sense of dependence that a, say, a wealthy business person, the owner, a wealthy business owner, or for that matter, even a slave owner, is dependent on the employees. Or the slaves. Because the employees are working for the owner. However, suppose it’s the case that the, let’s talk about employers rather than slaveholders.

Suppose it’s the case that the, the employer as usual evaluates the contributions of the workers and chooses to pay with her own resources for the work and could easily fire the workers that she has going for her and will not pay for work that she doesn’t consider to be up to par and suitable to her purposes.

Well, then there’s a sense of dependence but it’s a kind of pseudo dependence, right? She doesn’t really need this individual worker or that individual worker. And everything she does benefit from she pays for for herself. That’s an analogy how you can think of epistemic dependence from an individualistic point of view, okay? So the individualistic epistomology says yes, I can learn from others, but only because I’ve evaluated those others as worthy of teaching me.

So I’ve evaluated them as reliable, I’ve evaluated them as having a certain expertise, et cetera. So I use my own individual resources to validate other persons as being able to help me. So that’s a kind of pseudo dependence that is analogous to economic pseudo dependence. I want to think of epistemic dependence, of real epistemic dependence, on other persons as a dependence that takes me beyond my own resources and takes me beyond what I can evaluate or vindicate for myself.

So taking seriously a dependence on other persons as persons who have something that I don’t have and I can’t pay for, okay? Okay, so that’s epistemic individualism, and in that sense, epistemic individualism embraces this ideal of self-sufficiency in the intellectual realm. The only dependence on others it will admit is pseudo dependence on which others are verified or vindicated by my own individual resources, okay.

Okay, now another common position in epistomology goes by the name of evidentialism. And according to evidentialism, you know what, forget about the slide. Here’s the idea. The evidentialist thinks that someone’s epistemic status, what they’re rational in believing, what they’re justified in believing, what they know, what they understand, the evidentialist thinks that a person’s epistemic status is completely exhausted by what evidence they have. So, in other words, if you just know the facts about the evidence, those facts about the evidence will entail or determine the facts about epistemic status.

Another way of putting it is, what epistemic status a person has is all about what evidence they have and not about anything else. Okay? And in philosophy we say, the epistemic facts supervene on the facts about the evidence, okay? So, the facts about an individual’s evidence determine the facts about that individual’s epistemic status of one sort or another. The reason I put in “of one sort or another” is because you could be an evidentialist about one kind of epistemic status and not about another kind of epistemic status.

So, an evidentialist about knowledge thinks that what knowledge you have depends entirely on what evidence you have. An evidentialist about justification thinks that what justified beliefs you have depends entirely on what evidence you have, okay? So now my point is is that evidentialism entails epistemic individualism, all right? And it’s easy to see. Epistemic individualism is the idea that the epistemic status that I enjoy is entirely a function of my own cognitive resources. Evidentialism just narrows that idea to say, well, the cognitive resources that are important are the evidence that you possess.

So, evidentialism is kind of just a narrower kind of epistemic individualism in that it embraces the idea that an individual’s epistemic status is completely a function of their own cognitive resources, but it says and the cognitive resources are evidence and nothing but evidence that the individual possesses, okay? Okay, the next theme I want to, the next trend in epistomology that I want to tie to epistemic individualism is internalism, okay? Internalism is the idea that the facts about an individual’s epistemic status of one sort or another, and again, you can be an internalist about one thing or another thing, supervene or are completely determined by the facts that are internal to the individual, okay?

There are two main ways to understand what internal means. The first way is a kind of epistemic way. What’s internal to me is what I have a kind of privileged epistemic access to. What I can know just by reflecting, what I can know by just sort of using my sort of a priori and reflective capacities, that’s what’s internal to me.

What’s external to me is what falls outside of that realm of privileged access. Another way of thinking of internal, which is somewhat related, is that the internal is basically the mental. So what’s internal to me is what’s internal to my mental life. And the reason those two ideas are related is because philosophers have often thought that my mental life is exactly what is internally available to me in a privileged access sort of way.

So even if I can’t know for certain how the world is, I can know for certain how the world appears to me just by reflecting on appearances, et cetera, okay. So in either sense, the internalist wants to make positive epistemic status of one sort or another be completely a function of those sort of internal resources.

Now, of course internalism also entails individualism. And in fact, internalism is a kind of epistemic individualism on steroids, because now, it’s not just that positive epistemic status is completely determined by my own resources, determined by my own internal resources, what’s inside the skin or what is open to me in a kind of privileged way, okay?

So the only epistemic resources available to the individual, the only materials that can constitute her epistemic status are now those to which she has privileged access, or alternatively, the materials that constitute her own mental life. So the internalist is individualism, an individualist on steroids, and kind of a sort of paradigmatic case of individualism. Now, I have to, I should stop here and make a qualification or an apology or something.

So, here’s what you might be hearing. You might be hearing that I’m saying that evidentialism and internalism are a manifestation of intellectual pridefulness, embracing that ideal of self-sufficiency that we see, embracing certain ideals of autonomy that we see contrast with a properly humble, properly intellectually humble person. Now, here’s the problem. Some of the internalists and the evidentialists that I know, they’re some of the most humble people I know.

So I’m not saying that the internalists and the evidentialists are prideful. I’m saying they shouldn’t be evidentialists or internalists, all right? [laughing] So, I accept and admire and celebrate their humility, but you gotta change your epistomology, because it doesn’t go with your personality, okay, that’s the idea, that’s the idea, all right, all right.

I’m gonna skip the part about internalism and skepticism, but basically here’s the gist of it. Internalism as you can imagine is closely associated with skeptical worries. So the internalist thinks that, okay, internalism takes skepticism seriously. And you can see why, because they’ve got the task, they’ve got the burden of showing how you can make this bridge from these meager internal resources to knowledge of the world, knowledge of other minds, knowledge of the past, the future, et cetera. All right, so, and it’s not clear how you build that bridge.

So, but what I want to, basically the gist of this section was, in so far as the internalist thinks that they can build that bridge from very narrow individual resources to all of the justification and knowledge they think that they have of the world, they’re subject to these illusions of self-sufficiency, right? Maybe illusions of self-sufficiency. In so far as they can’t do it, and maybe embrace that, some internalists are willing to embrace a kind of skepticism, they’re still clinging to that ideal of self-sufficiency.

The idea is if I can’t do it with these resources it can’t be done at all. And so the non-skeptical internalist and the skeptic sort of share this ideal of self-sufficiency. It’s self-sufficiency or nothing. What I do want to spend a little bit of time on is an analogy to the practical realm. So, in a beautiful book, it’s kinda old by now, but, ’cause I read it when I was a kid, “The Fragility of Goodness”, Martha Nussbaum characterizes Greek philosophy, and I should say Greek thought, because she didn’t see this only in Greek philosophy but in Greek literature, et cetera, and in Greek tragedy.

She characterizes Greek philosophy as obsessed with the contingencies and vulnerability of luck. And she talks about how this sparked a retreat in value to what can be guaranteed by one’s own agency. And example of this would be Stoic conceptions of virtue and happiness that kind of turn inward and make real happiness or the real good for a human being to be immune from the contingencies of luck, to be immune from vulnerability.

A similar dynamic is played out in the Kantian retreat to a realm of pure agency. So here’s a famous passage from Kant, “A good will is not good,” now his work is finding value, “A good will is not good because of what it effects or “accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain “some proposed end, but only because of its volition,” ’cause the volition is what you can control, so, well, that’s the idea anyway. “It’s because of it’s volition that it’s good in itself, “even if by a special disfavor of fortune, “this will should wholly lack capacity “to carry out it’s purpose if with its greatest efforts “it should yet achieve nothing and only “the good will were left, then like a jewel “it would still shine by itself,” it would still have all the value there is to have, “as something that has its full worth in itself, “usefulness and fruitfulness can neither add anything “to this worth nor take away from it.”

This is similar to an internalist perspective in epistomology where so long as I from my own internal perspective can have a kind of rational or justified position, it doesn’t matter if I’m the victim of an evil deceiver, it doesn’t matter if it’s all illusion, et cetera, I will have done my job as an epistemic agent and all the value that there is to have achieved as an epistemic agent is achieved by this person who is thinking rightly from within their own internal realm even if that internal realm never gets at the world, even if it gets you nothing but illusion, et cetera.

Even if it doesn’t affect anything useful, so in other words, the value I have as a practical agent or the value I have as an intellectual agent is invulnerable to my dependence on the world, contingencies, et cetera. It also ties into a remark by Thomas Nagel in a paper on moral luck, when he talks about when you try, when you try to retreat to a realm of pure agency where pure agency is a kind of agency where you are completely invulnerable to luck and contingency, Nagel says, “The agent ends up shrinking into an extensionless point.” Now, ironically, he’s embracing that ideal, okay? [laughs]

So in other words, ironically, Nagel’s thinking yes, you have to, Nagel’s a Kantian, you have to find this realm of pure agency where it’s all up to you and you depend on nothing else but your own doing and that’s the ideal. And what he’s worrying is that that ideal gets you into this paradox where the agent ends up shrinking to an extensionless point. So I think there’s close analogies here between these long held issues in practical, the practical or moral realm and these issues in epistomology. Okay.

Okay, well what’s the alternative? There has been a movement in epistomology and it’s not a consensus by any means, but there has been a trend in epistomology away from internalism towards externalism. So we defined epistemic individualism as follows, the facts about an individual’s epistemic status of one sort or another supervene or are completely determined by the facts that are internal to the individual. Epistemic externalism simply denies epistemic internalism.

So, on an externalist view, the facts about an individual’s epistemic status of one sort or another are not wholly determined by the facts that are internal to the individual. Okay, well, what kind of facts do we have in mind here? I’m gonna read a little bit. ‘Cause I’m running out of time. So, most notably, these external facts will be causal and other modal facts describing relations between the individual and the world.

So, for example, facts about the reliability of one’s cognitive faculties, facts about the proper functioning of one’s cognition, and more generally, facts about the causal and modal relations between the individual and her environment.

So these are all paradigmatically external facts in that they are neither facts to which one has privileged access nor are they facts about one’s mental life. So, on this view, externalism places the notion of a pure, I’m sorry, externalism replaces the notion of a pure agent operating in a pure realm with that of an embodied agent operating in the world. What matters for intellectual status is a function both of what goes on internal to cognition but also how that cognition relates to the world. For example, whether the agent’s environment is enabling or undermining. In this way, externalism makes epistemic status of one sort or another depend partly on an environment that is not the agent’s own making.

And in doing so, it makes epistemic status and the agent herself vulnerable to the contingencies of what she cannot control. So from an externalist perspective, whether I have justified perceptual beliefs for example or whether I have perceptual knowledge is a matter of whether or not my perceptual environment is meshing with my perceptual faculties. I need a enabling physical environment for my cognition to work properly or to function properly and therefore give rise to good cognitive stuff. Positive epistemic status.

It’s not just a matter of sort of what the appearances are, but how I’ve been designed to interact with the cognitive processing, well, the cognitive processing involved in perception depends on the right sort of environment, not just what’s going on from the skin inward. That would just be an example of how the externalist is getting away from this notion of a pure internal agent to the interaction of an embodied agent with the environment.

But the externalist would say the same thing about reasoning, the same thing about memory, the same thing about mind reading or a knowledge of other persons. It’s not just about perception and physical objects. Very quickly, you can see how externalism motivates anti-evidentialism. Because if positive epistemic status is a matter of how well your cognition is connecting to the world. It really shouldn’t, evidence shouldn’t be the be all and end all anymore.

It should be that by whatever means, if you have that good fit between the subject and her environment, that should be able to produce positive epistemic good, and having good evidence is just one way to do that. And so, once you embrace a kind of an externalist perspective, you’re free to think of perception, memory, mind reading, other sorts of cognitive modes as not having to all go into the evidentialist box.

Evidence, having good evidence, reasoning from good evidence is just one way to properly hook up with the world, but we’re fitted with various ways to properly hook up with the world. So, so far, we’ve seen that, we’ve seen some motivations for rejecting internalism and rejecting evidentialism, and we’ve seen how doing so allows a more realistic estimation of one’s abilities and limitations, and how doing so embraces at least a kind of epistemic dependency on the world.

But all this is still consistent with epistemic individualism, and its rejection of social epistemic dependence or epistemic dependence on other persons. But, in fact, anti-individualism is simply an extension of externalism into the social world, right? Once you give up this ideal of pure intellectual agency and see positive epistemic status as the kind of product of agent world interaction, now we can just say, that’s not just about the physical world, it’s about the social world as well.

And we can think of our cognitive faculties as thriving, flourishing, producing good stuff not only in enabling physical environments but also in enabling social environments. So, I only have a few minutes, I just want to give an example of a way of thinking about our epistemic social dependence, which really does take seriously our dependence on other persons, not kind of pseudo dependence but kind of real epistemic dependence on other persons. In order to sort of show you the model, I need the notion of an epistemic community.

Think of an epistemic community as a bunch of people working together to achieve some shared practical tasks. But practical tasks that are information dependent. So we’re, an epistemic community is a group of people working together to do something together, but for which they need quality information to execute their task, right?

You could think of a business corporation, you could think of a family, you could think of a group of friends, in different contexts people come together because of shared tasks for which they share information. And that’s what I mean by an epistemic community. Now, each community will have practices with relevant norms and relevant standards for acquiring the information that they need and practices with relevant norms and standards for distributing the information that they need. So, think of the analogy of a military base.

There’ll be norms or standards for getting in and those will be probably quite high, because you only wanna let the right people in. And then there’ll be different norms and standards for moving around. Now, once you get in you don’t get to just go wherever you want, it’s not like nobody ever checks your ID, nobody like, looks at you and makes sure you’re not acting funny. I mean, there are norms and standards for what you can do once you’re inside the base, but they’re different from the norms or standards that get you into the base in the first place.

So that’s the analogy to information flowing in an intellectual community. There’ll be norms or standards for acquiring knowledge so to speak, getting it into the system in the first place, and then there’ll be different norms or standards for distributing that knowledge, for moving it around to get it to the people that need it.

So, we have, so within the blue is the bound of our epistemic community. And we have an example of information acquisition where somebody say, perceives a dog. Let’s say the dog is mean and everybody needs to know that there’s a mean dog out there. And so, here’s one way to get that information, a perceiver’s in the right position to get a good look at the threat. Or, if you want a nicer story, they wanna buy a dog, and he sees a nice cute dog, and so again, he’s in a position to, you know, say, okay, I’ve got some information, there’s a dog out there that we’re all interested in.

Now, there’ll be norms governing that transaction, right? The idea is that if he doesn’t get a good look, if he doesn’t do the kind of observations that are required to vindicate the sort of information that we need, then he’s not being a good epistemic agent. On the other hand, if he is getting a good look, if he is interacting or observing in the way that he needs for the particular task, you know, then he’s acquiring the knowledge, he’s meeting the standards for acquiring the knowledge that the community needs.

Now, contrast that with the notion of information distribution. See, epistemic communities thrive on a division of epistemic labor. The whole point of epistemic labor is that if you do something I don’t need to do it over again, right? So the idea is that now, once he has the epistemic goods, he can distribute them to other people that need it.

Those transactions are also gonna be governed by norms and standards, but they won’t be the same ones that would sort of undermine the point of an epistemic division of labor in the first place, right? These transactions are characterized by cooperation, right? They’re cooperating for a common purpose to achieve something as a community and their cooperation allows them to distribute information in a way in which it takes the burdens off the other people in the community.

They don’t have to go and see for themselves what this person saw. And then finally, we can see that testimony can actually play these two roles. Because sometimes, the testifier is outside our epistemic community, in which case we’re not in that same cooperative relationship, and so we have to sort of evaluate the person for what they’re saying, whatever, we can’t trust that person to be a cooperative agent in our community.

And so we do have to bring our own intellectual resources to evaluate what that person is saying and whether they should be believed. But the point is, is that, let’s say that this is a job applicant and this is a corporation and this is the personnel director, okay? The personnel director has to evaluate what this person is saying as truthful or not. So that kind of testimonial transaction does require a kind of, you know, using your own individual resources. But what I wanna do is I wanna contrast that transaction with these transactions.

Where now the employee goes and tells his boss or his coworkers about what he found out. Now, there’s a kind of cooperation and trust involved in which these people are able to benefit from the knowledge that he got in a way that he can’t just benefit from the knowledge that this person has, because it’s a different social relationship. So basically, this is just a big picture idea of how social epistemic dependence, at least in some contexts, can manifest a real epistemic dependence in which I can enjoy the benefits of trust and cooperation with other epistemic agents and they can give me something that I don’t have to entirely evaluate or validate for myself.

Some examples of reliable transmission of knowledge without reliable hearers. Parent-child exchanges, which are underwritten not by the child’s evidence but interpersonal relations. Friend-friend exchanges, again underwritten by social roles and norms of trust and cooperation. And then professional-client exchanges, underwritten by institutional roles and norms.

So I think that we’ve got all these sort of social contours to our social environments which allow for a kind of epistemic cooperation and interdependence that has little to do with the individual sort of evaluate, it’s not sort of like a group of independent individuals evaluating each other and only believing each other on the basis of, you know, what our own individual resources allow, but rather a kind of real interpersonal dependence in the intellectual or cognitive realm.