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Original paper UDC165:141.113(045)
doi: 10.21464/sp32115
Received: November 8th, 2015
Iris Vidmar
University of Rijeka, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Sveučilišna avenija 4, HR–51000 Rijeka
[email protected]
Epistemic Game of Thrones
The aim of this paper is rather modest: I want to provide an account of some of the most re­
cent developments in epistemology, characterized by a certain shift that has been going on
for some time now. This shift is best explained as the abandonment of traditional, monistic
picture (according to which knowledge is the only important achievement in our attempt to
cognitively grasp the world), and the acceptance of pluralism (according to which there are
other important cognitive achievements we should strive for, most notably understanding
and wisdom). One of the crucial aspects of this shift is the question about which cognitive
state inherits knowledge as the prime epistemic value, and this is the aspect I will be mostly
interested in. I will claim that the pluralistic picture fits much better into our cognitive
engagement with the world, with other people, and with ourselves. In that sense, rather
than rooting for one value as the holder of the epistemic throne, we should acknowledge the
irreplaceable contribution that each has for our attempts to come to terms with who we are
and with our experience of the world.
knowledge, epistemic monism, epistemic pluralism, understanding, wisdom
1. Epistemic aims and values:
   monism vs. pluralism
Writing about the task epistemology has traditionally been committed to,
Marian David says:
“Epistemologists of all persuasions tend to invoke the goal of obtaining truth and avoiding error.
This goal seems to be of specific interest to epistemology. No other goal is invoked as frequently
as this one. No other goal is given as much weight or is treated with as much respect as this one.”
(David 2001, p. 151)
David here expresses the traditional, monist view on what is our epistemic
goal: reaching truth. Whether it is the question of what is morally right or
wrong, of whether there are doors in front of me or whether there is a cat
on the mat, once we pose these questions, we want to get to the right answer. In case you wonder why, explanations are many. Philosophers of the
ancient times would tell you that we simply cannot live a life of happiness
and tranquillity, or good life, without having the knowledge of reality, and
all of its portions. Descartes would tell you that our inquiring minds demand of us to examine our knowledge and see what we can know. Aristotle
would have us convinced that we are simply drawn to asking questions and
we want to know the right answers. Truth is in this sense intrinsically good
and desired for its own sake, whether it has to do with listening to the latest
63 (1/2017) pp. (215–234)
I. Vidmar, Epistemic Game of Thrones
gossip about celebrities, counting the glades of grass in one’s background,
inquiring about the nature of beauty or trying to decide on the right course
of action.
Of course, trying to get to the truth always brings in the possibility of failing
in one’s attempts, for various reasons. Sceptics worn us about the impossibility of ever disproving sceptical scenarios, but even with lesser demands on
us, it still seems we are constantly falling behind our desire to reach truth.
We might be tired or in a hurry and therefore fail to see or consider a relevant
piece of evidence, we might be deceived by dishonest informer who nevertheless seems reliable, we may err due to be bad luck regardless of all of our
best efforts to be the best cognizers we can be. This means we are constantly
open to errors. In fact, the fact that the goal of reaching truth implies that
of avoiding error, the two come hand in hand. Wayne Riggs calls this Twin
Goods View:
“There are exactly two goods that are distinctly and purely cognitive or epistemic. They are (1)
having true beliefs and (2) avoiding false beliefs.” (Riggs 2002)
Given the way our epistemic goal is defined, all the epistemological assessments (whether of individual belief, sets of belief, believers or processes) will
only take into consideration how what is being evaluated fares with respect to
this goal. Ultimately, even the value of knowledge has to be derived from the
value of having true and not having false beliefs. Admirable as this might be,
serious reasons have been offered for resisting the monist view.
First of all, Riggs argues that The Twin Goods View is wrong. His reasons
for that claim have to do with a discussion on the value of knowledge, as
opposed to the value of its components; for my purpose here, we don’t need
to take up on this.1 But a valuable lesson is that, if we focus too much on
the (value of) truth and knowledge and praise these achievements on their
own, we lose sight of the active role of a cognizer. Such reasoning is motivated by drawing the analogies with what we praise in the domain of moral
“We value morally right acts because we are responsible for the good outcome that results. We
are correctly granted credit for the good outcome.” (Riggs 2002)
This same reasoning applies to what we value in epistemology. One can get to
the truth by lucky coincidence, or just by chance. In this case, cognizer reached
the truth (and avoided error), but somehow the intuition is, this is not enough
to make this achievement epistemically valuable. Thus, Riggs concludes, in
addition to valuing the goals of getting to the truth and avoiding error, we
“… value the properties of having reliable processes, epistemic virtues, truth-directed motivations, and so forth. But, in addition, we value being responsible for the satisfaction of our cognitive goals. Such responsibility requires at least that the goals are reached by way of our very own
epistemically valuable properties.” (Riggs 2002)
First lesson from this objection to monist epistemology is to acknowledge the
importance and significance of the responsible cognizer.
Another reason for abandoning the epistemic monism (and the epistemic primacy of truth) is the fact that such a view doesn’t differentiate between good,
bad, and pointless truths. In discussing the problem of pointless truth Jonathan Kvanvig is more concerned with showing that truth (and knowledge and
understanding, whose value derives from their connection to truth) has unqualified and universal value, but such a view has to explain for the fact that
we find some truths (the number of the sand grains on the beach or the number
63 (1/2017) pp. (215–234)
I. Vidmar, Epistemic Game of Thrones
of grass blades in one’s backyard) trivial.2 But if our main epistemic goal is
believing truths, then even pointless truths seem to be of importance, and we
should aim at knowing them. If not, one has to find a criterion for differentiating between those that do and those that don’t. One way for doing so is to invoke the notion of those truths which are pragmatically important: if having a
certain truth can help us further some practical goal, then being in possession
of that truth is important, and the truth in turn is valuable. Notice, however,
plausible as this might be, that it does not solve our problem: the monist has to
stay deeply committed to the view that all truth matters, always. Thus he cannot accept any kind of division between trivial and important truths. Yet, our
epistemic practice strongly favours the view according to which some truths
matter more strongly than others. We are very discriminatory when it comes
to investing our research efforts and we don’t want our time and energy be