Katherine Dormandy received her DPhil in Philosophy from Oxford University in December, 2012, and has since worked at the Munich School of Philosophy and Berlin’s Humboldt University. She is now based at the University of Innsbruck. Her main research area is epistemology but she has also done work in the philosophy of religion and in ontology and information science. Her Intellectual Humility project, entitled “The Virtues of Epistemic Relationality”, will argue that there are many more ways than testimony to gain the hard-to-obtain knowledge encapsulated in another person’s perspective on reality.
Gaining knowledge from others is traditionally seen as inferior to gaining it on one’s own. We want reality, not another person’s limited perspective on reality. But this thought is wrong-headed. We are just as cognitively limited as others. Moreover, everyone is cognitively limited in different ways, so everyone has insights which others lack. Exposure to a variety of perspectives can teach us more than relying on our own.
Indeed, philosophers are recognizing that testimony (i.e., linguistic communication) is an excellent way to obtain knowledge, especially when the testifier is an expert.
Yet testimony is limited. If the testifier’s knowledge is incompatible with the hearer’s beliefs or experiences, then the hearer will not gain that knowledge. The testimony must fit with what the hearer already thinks. In other words, every person is epistemically situated within her own perspective. A major reason is emerging with research in psychology, neurology, and self-coaching: people’s beliefs, and even our experiences, are heavily influenced by what we are neurologically primed to expect. This priming comes from our past experiences, desires, and fears. Two differently primed agents can experience the same scenario very differently. Thus although people have unique perspectives which are true to different aspects of reality, those perspectives are largely closed off from others. It seems that learning from others’ perspectives is a quixotic dream.
But I’ll argue that are ways to overcome epistemic situatedness and gain knowledge from others. Testimony is only one of many epistemically relational ways of obtaining knowledge – that is, of coming to know by familiarizing ourselves with another person’s perspective. A perspective includes a person’s beliefs, experiences, and (as I understand it here) his disposition to evaluate her beliefs and experiences to ground new beliefs. In addition to communicating her beliefs, another person can communicate her experiences and even help us acquire her evidence-evaluating dispositions. This can help us gain knowledge which she has, expanding our base of beliefs and experiences and familiarizing us with novel ways of evaluating them. Several epistemically relational phenomena make this possible. There is second- person experience (in which we directly experience another person as a person, including internalizing some of her states), non-literal communication (such as stories or poetry) or even non-verbal communication (such as art or kinaesthetic learning).
Three intellectual virtues promote such epistemically relational knowledge: intellectual humility, intellectual charity, and empathy. Being intellectually humble is recognizing that one’s own perspective is not generally privileged; it corrects a natural tendency to think ourselves better attuned to reality merely because we are us. Empathy is the imaginative simulation of another person’s cognitive and affective states while maintaining self-other differentiation. Intellectual charity treats another’s perspective as stemming reasonably from his epistemic history and hence as casting light on aspects of reality which he has cognized. Cultivating these virtues and using them to engage with others can go a long way toward solving the problem of epistemic situatedness.