Minds Fit for Knowing: On the Role of Intellectual Virtues

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Have you ever been deceived about something or been duped by an illusion. Or, have you ever changed a belief over time? For most of us, this kind of thing is normal and happens rather often. But a direct implication of this reality is that we are the kinds of beings that are regularly wrong about things. We might not like to admit it, but it’s true.

The causes for our intellectual errors are many. We are finite creatures. We do not have infinite minds. We see only part of things and often lack the ability to understand what we do see. We are also fallen. We’ve all sinned and in addition to the theological and moral impact that this has on us, our sin also hinders our minds and prevents us from seeing clearly. There is more that could be said, but let’s just take it as a given that we are often wrong about things. What can be done?

One of the important contributions that philosophy makes to our lives is in the realm of knowledge: epistemology (the study of knowledge). I’ll save the larger summary of this discipline for later, and will focus instead on an area called virtue epistemology. Virtue epistemology studies intellectual virtues and the way they enable the knower to be more successful in knowing. At the heart of this approach are the intellectual virtues. Let me explain.

What is a virtue? In short, a virtue is a characteristic, quality, or disposition that promotes goodness and well-being. We typically think of virtue as being a purely moral characteristic and is discussed in the realm of ethics. But philosophers and theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, have noted that there are also intellectual virtues and that they are as significant as moral virtues.

But what are intellectual virtues and how do they work? In many ways, they are like moral virtues. Just as moral virtues promote well-being and goodness, intellectual virtues promote a kind of well-being and goodness of their own. But in this case, they promote a goodness that contributes to our knowledge. That is, when we possess intellectual virtues, we are more successful in learning, grasping, and understanding. An intellectual virtue is a characteristic, like humility or cautiousness, that allows us to be more successful in discerning the truth. They remove blindness, exaggeration, pride and closed mindedness, and sharpen your minds to see more clearly. In the end, the intellectually virtuous person is more fit for knowing and will avoid more error than the person who does not posses them.

So, intellectual virtues are extremely valuable to us as knowers. They help us avoid the intellectual errors we often make in judgments and decisions. I’ll give further examples next week. But for now, if you’d like to know more and begin reading about how these work, here are a few quick resources:

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