A Novel Approach to Knowing: Integrating Narrative Literature and Virtue Epistemology

by Lauren Dammon

Although philosophers like Martha Nussbaum have demonstrated key ways in which narrative literature can contribute to—and may even be essential for—philosophical discussions of ethics and moral knowledge, little effort has been made to explore a similar connection between narrative literature and epistemology. Just as narrative literature provides a humanizing corrective for abstract, analytic ethical theories, so it can help epistemologists overcome the increasingly artificial and theoretical nature of post-Gettier epistemology. Because of its emphasis on knowing as a sustained, communal practice rather than an episodic event performed by an isolated individual, virtue epistemology in particular stands to gain from an incorporation of narrative literature into philosophic discussion. In this paper, I will comment briefly on some general advantages of virtue epistemology, examine four ways in which narrative literature might contribute to the project of virtue epistemology, consider two potential counterarguments, and then give an example of what the integration of literature and virtue epistemology might look like by analyzing a narrative work in terms of epistemic vice and virtue.

In recent years, Western epistemology has focused almost exclusively on the problem of defining justification such that any and all justified true beliefs count as knowledge. The abstract, theoretical nature of the discussion is evidenced by its emphasis on rules, definitions, counterfactual examples, and necessary and sufficient conditions. As Roberts and Wood observe in Epistemic Virtues, this stubborn search for formulaic definitions of knowledge has caused the field of epistemology to become “increasingly ingrown, epicyclical, and irrelevant to broader philosophical and human concerns” (4). More than forty years have passed since Edmund Gettier published “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, yet there is still no consensus among philosophers as to whether justification is an adequate condition for knowledge and, if so, how we ought to define it. Not only has modern analytic epistemology become exceedingly esoteric and artificial, but its inability to generate a successful account of knowledge indicates a failure on its own terms.

These dim prospects for discovering sufficient conditions for knowledge have caused epistemologists like Linda Zagzebski, Ernest Sosa, James Montmarquet and others to examine the role of human virtues in acquiring epistemic goods. Though each of these virtue epistemologists adopts a different conception of an intellectual virtue and of its proper role in the epistemological project, the most interesting and promising kinds of virtue epistemology define intellectual virtues as character traits (somewhat analogous to moral virtues) that are often helpful in acquiring epistemic goods, but are not necessary requirements for an individual’s doing so. This kind of “radical” virtue epistemology departs from modern epistemology and “routine” virtue epistemology because it is not concerned with defining the conditions for knowledge, but rather with helping epistemic agents cultivate intellectual virtues (Solomon 78-80). Thus, “radical” virtue epistemology (hereafter referred to simply as virtue epistemology) offers not only an escape from the stalemate between conflicting accounts of justification, but also a means of restoring epistemology “as a philosophical discipline with broad human importance” (Roberts and Wood Epistemic Virtues 5). By shifting our goal from specifying the conditions for knowledge to examining the virtues that help us acquire epistemic goods, we can gain a better understanding of deep kinds of knowledge and the means by which we acquire knowledge. In addition, virtue epistemology’s emphasis on long-term practices and education is more realistic than analytic epistemology’s tendency to view knowledge acquisition in discrete episodes. And, most importantly, virtue epistemology stresses the human and contextual aspects of knowledge acquisition; knowing is not an activity performed in isolation by a disembodied mind according to abstract principles, but rather an activity engaged in by actual persons over the course of their whole lives, in connection with other humans.

Because literature, like virtue epistemology, emphasizes particular persons and circumstances over abstract definitions and theories, it has much to offer virtue epistemologists. Though some epistemologists (including Roberts and Wood in Epistemic Virtues) have occasionally drawn on literary characters to illustrate epistemic virtues and vices, few have fully exploited literature’s potential contribution to epistemology, or its unique ability to articulate certain truths about knowledge and knowing. In her introduction to Love’s Knowledge, Nussbaum quotes philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch: “You may know a truth, but if it’s at all complicated you have to be an artist not to utter it as a lie” (2). As the many difficulties faced by modern epistemologists testify, knowing is nothing if not complicated, and this complexity must be reflected in the ways that we talk about knowing and knowledge.

A factor that complicates any epistemology is that the abstract theories that it produces cannot account for the inherent particularity of human experience. While this helps explain the failure of our attempts to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, it also suggests some limitations of virtue epistemology as well. Virtue epistemologists face the difficult problem of determining what exactly the intellectual virtues are. Although we often speak of them as abstract concepts, the intellectual virtues, like moral virtues, are interconnected, contextual, and extremely complex. Like the morally courageous person, the agent who exhibits epistemic courage walks a fine line between foolhardy bravado and admirable dedication. Sometimes, the same action could be judged both vicious and virtuous, depending on the surrounding circumstances.

Not only are actions neither inherently intellectually virtuous nor vicious, but also the intellectually virtuous person must determine which virtue to exercise when and to what degree she ought to exercise that virtue in a given circumstance. To borrow Roberts and Wood’s example, Dr. Frankenstein’s pursuit of scientific knowledge might, under some circumstances, seem to exemplify a virtuous love of knowledge, but Shelley makes it clear that Dr. Frankenstein’s pursuit of knowledge is obsessive, ignorant of its effects, unmediated by other intellectual virtues like humility and moderation, and thus vicious in the extreme (Epistemic Virtues 182-83). Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus demonstrates a similarly faulty epistemic will through his desire to accumulate forbidden knowledge for the purpose of controlling others. Superficially, Faustus appears to fit some abstract conceptions of virtuous love of knowledge, but a close examination of the particular kinds of knowledge he seeks, the ends to which he puts it, and his lack of other intellectual virtues demonstrates that his is not a case of intellectual virtue. Theorizing about epistemic virtues goes only so far toward helping us identify and perform intellectually virtuous acts. Concrete examples, like the two I have just given, are necessary for understanding the intellectual virtues and vices, and narrative literature offers a wealth of such examples, ready-made for the epistemologist’s use.

Granted, not all literature is equally well-suited to this kind of philosophical work. While I am not interested in establishing a canon of literature to which virtue epistemologists should appeal, something must be said as to what constitutes narrative literature and what kinds of narrative literature will be most helpful to virtue epistemologists. I am assuming a loose definition of narrative that consists of works of literature that tell a story, usually in some roughly chronological way. This definition allows the inclusion of drama, epic poetry (and some other kinds of poetry), short stories, and biographies, along with the more common fiction novel. Of these, the most likely candidates for epistemological study will be those that center on the life of one epistemic agent over an extended period of time. Further, the most helpful pieces will be those that are generally recognized as canonical and therefore are widely studied and likely to be familiar to the virtue epistemologist’s audience.

That literature can be a valuable resource in applying abstract virtues to particular contexts is not a new concept. As Nussbaum observes, “the best ethical criticism, ancient and modern, has insisted on the complexity and variety revealed to us in literature, appealing to that complexity to cast doubt on reductive theories” (“Form and Content” 22). Just as virtue ethics is primarily concerned with the question “What is a good person like?,” so virtue epistemology is concerned with questions such as “What is a good knower like?” Both disciplines, then, are interested in practical activities and particulars rather than abstract rules. While rules about how one ought to live can be useful, they cannot prescribe how one ought to live in every situation; a degree of practical wisdom is necessary for determining when and how to apply the rules. Similarly, intellectual virtues like courage, tenacity, and humility cannot be adequately summarized by rules but require attention to one’s particular circumstances as well. Literature preserves this “loving conversation between rules and responses, general conceptions and unique cases” (95). Nussbaum describes the interaction between the abstract and particular in literature thus:

Novels direct us to attend to the concrete; they display before us a wealth of richly realized detail, presented as relevant for choice. And yet they speak to us: they ask us to imagine possible relations between our own situations and those of the protagonists, to identify with the characters and/or the situation, thereby perceiving those similarities and differences. In this way their structure suggests, as well, that much of moral relevance is universalizable (95).

Just as narrative literature complements and contextualizes the moral virtues, so it contextualizes epistemic virtues. Because epistemic agents in narrative literature always act within particular contexts and we judge their intellectual vice or virtue in light of those contexts, we get a more realistic picture of the intellectual virtues in literature than in analytic philosophy. In an essay on Cervantes and ancient Greek epistemology, Anthony Cascardi observes that “literature models a world in which knowledge is possible by means of practical reasoning (prudence); as a form of utterance it is itself constituted as judgments that turn upon a sense of what to say when” (410). Although virtue epistemologists can certainly invent their own examples to illustrate intellectual virtues, these examples must necessarily be abbreviated, artificial, and incomplete due to the space and time constraints of philosophical writing. Works of narrative literature, on the other hand, offer fully developed characters, complex situations, and the kind of rich detail that is more reflective of real human life than are philosophical examples.

In addition to providing particular examples of abstract intellectual virtues, literature helps illustrate and justify the virtue epistemologist’s historical view of knowing. One advantage virtue epistemology offers over other kinds of epistemology is that it emphasizes the importance of the knower’s moral and epistemological formation over time. While analytic epistemologies consider only the properties of beliefs, virtue epistemology stresses the character traits and doxastic practices of the knower, most of which are the result of conscious, long-term processes like education and character formation. Narrative literature, especially Bildungsroman novels and other genres that trace the development of one or two characters over extended periods of time, helps us understand the importance of these extended processes.

For example, Pip of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations demonstrates how a faulty education can result in intellectual vices that interfere with one’s ability to acquire knowledge. Strongly influenced by Miss Havisham’s twisted encouragement to grasp after things beyond his social position and by Estella’s repeated insistence that her education and refined intellect make her socially superior to Pip, Pip develops a vicious preoccupation with the social status conferred by knowledge (in Roberts and Wood’s account, this qualifies as vicious intellectual vanity [Epistemic Virtues 254]). Pip’s efforts to acquire education—enlisting Biddy as a tutor and then continuing his education in London—only lead to the additional vice of intellectual arrogance. Convinced of his intellectual superiority, Pip begins to assume for himself certain social benefits as well. Because of his sense of social and intellectual superiority to commoners like Uncle Joe and Magwitch, Pip forms the false belief that his wealthy benefactor must be Miss Havisham or someone of equally high social standing. Pip is finally forced to accept the truth that his benefactor is none grander than a dirty criminal, and his arrogance is exposed for the intellectual vice that it is. But Pip’s false belief about the identity of his benefactor is not the result of malfunctioning perceptual faculties or a lack of warrant for his belief. Rather, the root of Pip’s false belief can be traced to Miss Havisham and Estella’s corrupting education. By suggesting that some of the most important factors in promoting or inhibiting epistemic well-being are cultivated in the agent over time, narrative literature supports virtue epistemologists’ intuition that virtuous character traits and proper education are central to one’s ability to acquire knowledge.

Another point of continuity between virtue epistemology and narrative literature is their shared emphasis on the social nature of knowledge. Some intellectual virtues like generosity and charity do not have a direct effect on one’s store of knowledge; it is not as though the generous scientist who shares the results of her latest experiment with her peers necessarily expands her own store of knowledge or deepens her understanding by doing so. And yet, many virtue epistemologists still consider such traits to be virtues that deliver epistemic goods because they view knowledge acquisition as a social enterprise. Even if the intellectually virtuous person does not directly benefit from her virtue, the community of which she is a part will benefit. Further, it stands to reason that her intellectual generosity and charity toward others in her community will likely be reciprocated. In narrative literature, the relationship between self and community, private and public spheres, is clearly illustrated. While epistemologists (even some virtue epistemologists) usually focus on the epistemic agent in isolation from others, this artificial notion is rarely present in literature.

Another result of this social dimension of knowledge is that the intellectual virtues that help us acquire epistemic goods are not always located in an individual, but sometimes are found in a group of individuals who do not necessarily possess those virtues on their own. Christopher Hookway observes that “communities may also possess virtues—facilitating debate and regulating the progress of investigations—which may not be reducible to the virtues of the individuals who belong in them” (189). Further, even the intellectual vices of some individuals can, when those individuals are members of a group, contribute to the intellectual virtues of that group. Hookway gives an example of a team comprised of some dogmatic individuals and some who are overly open-minded. While the individual members have intellectual vices, these vices seem to balance out in the team.

The most obvious example of this phenomenon in literature is that of detective partners, of whom Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are undoubtedly the most familiar. Despite pop culture’s portrayal of Holmes as an infallible epistemic agent and Watson as a bumbling idiot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original books depict them in a less exaggerated light. Though Holmes has remarkable wit and acuity, he sometimes demonstrates a lack of human consideration in his quest for cold, hard facts; more than one critic has, justifiably, accused Holmes of being a misanthropic thinking machine, and this blind devotion to facts can cause Holmes to miss important clues. On the other hand, Watson’s investigations err on the side of sentimentality, though his sympathetic attention to the testimony of victims and witnesses makes him invaluable in the detective process. Neither Holmes nor Watson exemplifies perfectly the intellectual virtue that Augustine and Aquinas call “studiositas,” yet the two complement each other in such a way that together they form an epistemically virtuous team and a formidable detective agency.

This leads us to yet another connection between virtue epistemology and narrative literature: their attention to human beings as whole individuals who possess a mix of intellectual virtues and vices which affect each other in interesting and important ways. It is tempting for the virtue epistemologist to treat each intellectual virtue or vice as though it is self-contained and separable from the other intellectual virtues or vices, but we human beings are whole creatures and suffer from not thinking of ourselves as whole creatures. It is artificial to think of a person as being intellectually courageous without also having at least trace amounts of other intellectual virtues like love of knowledge and practical wisdom, and would be misleading for a virtue epistemologist to focus on the intellectual virtue of courage without also mentioning these other virtues.

Narrative literature, unlike analytic philosophy, presents people as round, multi-dimensional characters. In most literature, those characters depicted as having only one virtue or vice, in isolation from all others, are “flat” or “stock” characters relegated to the periphery of the story. The protagonist and other important characters exhibit complex combinations of virtues and vices, though they may have some that are more dominant or obvious than others. Although Shakespeare’s Hamlet sometimes demonstrates considerable intellectual courage and a virtuous desire for knowledge, he is also plagued by intellectual flaccidity, hyper-autonomy, and a lack of practical wisdom. All of these intellectual virtues and vices work together to cause Hamlet to act the way he does. His decision to ascertain single-handedly his uncle’s guilt is not merely the result of his intellectual courage, but also of a hyper-autonomous tendency to distrust others. In fact, Hamlet is such a complex epistemic agent that literary critics and psychologists are still trying to figure him out. This kind of complexity of character and combination of vices and virtues is much more realistic than the philosopher’s methodical account of individual virtues. Thus, the realistic blending of various vices and virtues in narrative literature is a necessary corrective for the artificially ordered virtue epistemologist’s analysis.

Narrative literature, then, complements and corrects virtue epistemology by providing epistemologists with a ready supply of necessary particular examples for fleshing out abstract concepts of virtue, by demonstrating the importance of an historical view of knowledge acquisition and virtue cultivation, by emphasizing the social nature of the epistemic enterprise, and by attending to epistemic agents as whole beings whose actions cannot be successfully attributed to single intellectual vices or virtues operating in isolation from others.

While I have argued that these unique features of narrative literature make it an important auxiliary for virtue epistemology, I can foresee at least two objections to the kind of integration of philosophy and literature I propose. First, literary critics may well resist my proposal out of a sense that narrative literature was never intended to be appropriated to the study of epistemology, and reading and analyzing literature for epistemological purposes inevitably reduces literary masterpieces to mere instruments for analytic philosophy. Second, I expect many philosophers will accuse me of collapsing the distinction between the moral and intellectual virtues, thus blurring the line between ethicists and epistemologists. This kind of literary analysis and talk of virtue, they might say, ought to be left for those in ethics and moral philosophy to sort out, not epistemologists.

In response to the first argument, literary critics have indeed seen rather ugly things happen as a result of other branches of study appropriating (or misappropriating) literary works for their own use. Certainly, fields like psychology and philosophy are notorious for wreaking havoc on literary studies; as evidence, one need only consider Marxism’s reduction of complex literary works to simple depictions of class struggle. Such cases differ radically from what I am proposing, however. The integration of literature and epistemology that I advocate does not take a reductive view of literature. Rather, the rich complexity of detail, development, theme, and character in narrative literature are the very things from which virtue epistemology stands to gain the most. The virtue epistemologist would attend very closely to the protagonist, analyzing him as a whole character who engages in epistemic activities. This does not seem unfairly reductive to me, given that human beings are fundamentally epistemic agents and that many literary works are written explicitly about that fact. Much of narrative literature, both ancient and modern, centers around a character or group of characters who acquire or are deprived of epistemic goods as a result of their intellectual virtues or vices. Epistemic concerns permeate narrative literature and therefore legitimate critical approaches that examine literature in epistemological terms.

The second objection is more difficult. I must admit that “radical” virtue epistemology and especially its integration with narrative literature blurs the distinction between moral and intellectual virtues, ethics and epistemology. However, this seems to me to be another asset of “radical” virtue epistemology, rather than a liability. Just as analytic epistemology risks giving a false account of what it means to be human by separating human character and actions according to discrete intellectual virtues and faculties, so it tends to divide the human self into a moral part and an epistemic part. While the division is convenient for philosophers, it is inaccurate and ultimately counterproductive. Few, if any, human actions are ever informed by only moral concerns or by only epistemic concerns. We function as whole beings; the motives, traits, education, and other factors that shape our thoughts and actions are complex mixtures of moral and epistemic concerns.

Hamlet’s determination to investigate his father’s death is partly motivated by an epistemic concern for the truth, partly by a moral obligation to avenge his father’s murder, and probably by other reasons as well. And so it is with most examples in narrative literature and in real life; we see people acting not as purely epistemic agents thinking of the world in terms of knowledge acquisition, but as agents who are concerned with moral duty, selfish interest, and a host of other issues. In contrast, the overly simplistic examples used by analytic epistemologists testify to the absurdity of the attempt to separate ethics from epistemology. Sosa’s bird-in-tree example, like Greco’s lottery example, deals with dry and uninteresting types of knowledge that are not adequately representative of the wide varieties of epistemic goods we seek in real life. Hitherto, epistemology has concerned itself primarily with those kinds of knowledge which are produced just by having properly functioning faculties and that can be divorced from moral implications. This dramatically limits the types of epistemic goods epistemologists can deal with and results in examples of epistemic agents who bear little resemblance to real human beings in daily life. Normal humans do not look out their window, consider whether or not their eyes are properly-functioning epistemic faculties, form a propositional belief regarding the existence of a bird in the tree, and consider that belief well-justified (and thus likely to qualify as knowledge). But most human beings do intuitively think that a virtuous love of knowledge, a degree of intellectual autonomy, and practical wisdom are somehow helpful in acquiring epistemic goods, and many feel that an education that cultivates these virtues is somehow important. While introducing narrative literature into “radical” virtue epistemology may muddy the waters that divide moral virtues from intellectual virtues, I think this is a small price to pay for gaining a more accurate, true-to-life epistemology.

Realizing that analytic philosophers will be reluctant to make such a move, I have tried to restrict myself to some of the more clearly epistemological literary examples rather than ones that are easily construed as examples of moral virtues. I hope this will make my proposal more palatable for those who wish to preserve a firm distinction between ethics and epistemology, but I also hope that epistemologists will begin to take seriously the idea that defining intellectual virtues merely as faculties or as traits that are strongly linked to epistemic goods and have absolutely no connection to moral virtues or goods might not be the most accurate or helpful way of thinking about virtue epistemology.

Though I realize that my answer is probably less than satisfying for philosophers who are dedicated to separating moral philosophy and epistemology, in the interest of pursuing my specific aim in this paper I will proceed with an example of the kind of careful analysis of epistemic vice and virtue in literature that I am suggesting. Because of its familiarity and explicit concern with knowledge and knowing, I have chosen Sophocles’ Oedipus The King as my subject. In Oedipus, we have a wonderful example of a complex character whose virtues and vices play a direct role in determining his ability to acquire epistemic goods.

From the very beginning of the play, we are aware that Oedipus has several intellectual vices. He frequently reminds the Thebans that he is “Oedipus, renowned of all” (77) who, by his surpassing intellect, solved the riddle of the Sphinx and liberated their city. His vain insistence on his value and status as the solver of the Sphinx’s riddle indicates a serious lack of intellectual humility. As a result of the overestimation of his epistemic abilities, Oedipus makes the hubristic claim that he will “once more make dark things plain” by finding out and eradicating the cause of Thebes’ current problems (80). Oedipus is also hyper-autonomous. He determines to find out the truth himself and refuses to heed the testimony of Teiresias, the prophet (85-86). Oedipus’ brother-in-law (and uncle) Creon points out another of his flaws: his “stubbornness without sense” (90), which causes him to hold too firmly to his belief that he “shall never be found guilty of the blood [of his father]” (91). This vicious perceptual rigidity, along with his vanity and hyper-autonomy, initially precludes Oedipus from seriously considering the possibility that he may be responsible for the Thebans’ troubles.

However, as the play progresses Oedipus’ ability to acquire and exercise epistemic virtues helps him discover both the truth about himself and Thebes’ predicament. The most important factor in Oedipus’ finding out the facts seems to be his unwavering pursuit of the truth. His determination to find the root of the problem and his love of knowledge drive him to “leave nothing untried in seeking to find him whose hand shed [Laius’] blood” (83). This love of knowledge is augmented by his considerable intellectual courage. Even when it begins to look as though the truth will be harmful to him (because of its moral implications, the physical punishments he has prescribed for the guilty party, and for the way it will disrupt his whole noetic structure), Oedipus continues to seek the truth. Realizing the truth before Oedipus does, Iocasta implores him, “if you have any care, for your own life, forbear this search!” (103). Nevertheless, Oedipus bravely (and self-sacrificially) determines that finding out the truth and ridding Thebes of its deadly plague is more virtuous than continuing in blissful ignorance. Ultimately, Oedipus’ virtuous love of knowledge and his epistemic courage also help him overcome his vanity, hyper-autonomy and perceptual rigidity. Faced with the testimonies of Iocasta, the messenger, the herdsman, and the seers, Oedipus realizes the truth about his past and, at the moment of peripateia, acquires not just an academic sort of knowledge that he is the guilty party, but also a full understanding of the magnitude of this truth and a greater self-awareness (106).

Clearly, these rich epistemic goods of knowledge, understanding, and acquaintance cannot be reduced to the products of properly functioning faculties or justified true beliefs. Oedipus has exceptional powers of reasoning (as demonstrated by his ability to solve the riddle of the Sphinx) and excellent sensory perception (he constantly brags that his good eyesight makes him a better epistemic agent than blind Teiresias). Similarly, his false beliefs about his own innocence seem perfectly justifiable. Oedipus has good reason for thinking that he cannot be Iocasta’s son (he has no reason to doubt the testimony of Polybus and Merope that he is their son), and his belief that the man he slew was not his father seems equally warranted. On the strength of his faculties and justification alone, it is difficult to see how Oedipus would ever have uncovered the truth. In Sophocles’ play, the best way of accounting for Oedipus’ epistemic gain is by examining the development of his intellectual virtues and vices.

For all its epistemological connections, Oedipus The King also suggests that the intellectual virtues are not entirely separable from moral ones, any more than knowledge can be divorced from its ethical implications. Oedipus’ love of knowledge is closely tied to his moral concern to avenge Laius’ murder and liberate the Thebans’ from the plague (77-79). Similarly, his epistemic courage is related to his moral courage; one of the risks that Oedipus takes is exposing and admitting his morally corrupt patricide and incest, and, in fact, the knowledge that Oedipus gains does have important moral implications. Appalled by the knowledge of his own immorality, Oedipus punishes himself by gouging out his eyes (109). That he punishes himself for moral vices by damaging his epistemic faculties suggests that Oedipus recognizes a fundamental connection between moral and epistemic knowledge.

Not only does Sophocles’ play help us understand how intellectual virtues operate in a particular situation to deliver epistemic goods, but it helps us see how knowing is an historical and social event, and how knowing is engaged in by whole agents who have combinations of intellectual virtues and vices (and perhaps moral ones as well). This kind of careful analysis of narrative literature corrects and completes the conceptual theories of “radical” virtue epistemologists, and presents a promising alternative to purely analytic epistemology.


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