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What Are Intellectual Virtues?

Nathan King

Five key features of the intellectual virtues

Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame
September 25, 2014

What are the key features of intellectual virtues? I’ll offer five key observations in this short piece.

1. They take practice.

First, according to one common philosophical understanding, intellectual virtues are acquired. Someone might be born with good vision or hearing, but no one is born with intellectual courage, open-mindedness, or perseverance. We have to get the virtues through instruction and practice.

2. They’re dispositions of excellent people.

Second, intellectual virtues are excellent character traits. They are features that make a person excellent as a person. As traits of character, intellectual virtues aren’t mere faculties or skills. Good eyesight isn’t a virtue in this sense.[1] Nor is mathematical skill. Important as these may be, they aren’t by themselves virtues, and they aren’t central to our evaluation of persons as persons. To put it bluntly, being intellectually courageous makes you a better person in a way that good eyesight and mathematical skill do not. As traits of character, the intellectual virtues are what philosophers call dispositions to perform in certain ways under certain circumstances (for instance, a tendency to receive criticism with an open mind when the criticism is plausible enough to merit serious consideration).

3. They involve human motivations, values, emotions, and intentions.

Third, as traits of character, intellectual virtues involve our motivations, values, emotions, and intentions. The intellectually virtuous person loves the truth and disdains falsehood. She values knowledge and understanding. She intends to achieve these goods. These internal states explain why she is disposed to act in intellectually virtuous ways. And they explain why we admire the intellectually virtuous person—when we consider how she is oriented toward the truth, we see that she’s worthy of admiration.

4. They’re aimed at cognitive goods.

Fourth, intellectual virtues aim at cognitive goods (truth, knowledge, and understanding). This is what unifies the intellectual virtues and helps distinguish them from their more famous cousins, the moral virtues.

5. They’re often means between two extremes.

Finally, most intellectual virtues are means between extremes (called vices). One extreme is an excess, and the other a deficiency. For example, intellectual courage is a mean between intellectual rashness and cowardice. Humility stands between undue self-deprecation and arrogance, and so on.

For Further Reading…

For those wanting more on the intellectual virtues, this book is the place to start:

Philip Dow, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Virtue Development (IVP Academic, 2013).

Readers who want to go further should consider:

Jason Baehr, The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology (Oxford University Press: 2011).

Robert C. Roberts and Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford University Press: 2007).

[1] Some philosophers do understand such faculties as reliable vision and reasoning as intellectual virtues. This is a perfectly respectable use of the term, though one that refers to virtues that differ in kind from those discussed here.