Group virtue epistemology


According to Sosa (A virtue epistemology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007; Reflective knowledge, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009; Knowing full well, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011), knowledge is apt belief, where a belief is apt when accurate because adroit (competent). Sosa (Philos Perspect 24(1):465–475, 2010; Judgment and agency, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015) adds to his triple-A analysis of knowledge, a triple-S analysis of competence, where a complete competence combines its seat, shape and situation. Much of Sosa’s influential work assumes that epistemic agents are individuals who acquire knowledge when they hit the truth through exercising their own individual skills in appropriate shapes and situations. This paper explores an extension of Sosa’s framework to a social setting in which groups constitute epistemic agents over and above their individual members. The claim is that groups can be ascribed knowledge in virtue of hitting the truth through exercising their competences in appropriate shapes and situations. While knowledge at the collective level may diverge from knowledge at the individual level, the competences of groups are nothing over and above the combined competences of their members. The ensuing view thus has implications for the debate over reduction and supervenience in collective epistemology.

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  1. 1.

    For more on the value of knowledge see Kvanvig (2003).

  2. 2.

    Some virtue epistemologists, such as Baehr (2012), merely claim that intellectual (character) virtues deserve a central place in epistemology.

  3. 3.

    For two prominent defenses of alternative versions, see Zagzebski (1996) and Greco (2009, (2012).

  4. 4.

    Following Sosa (2015, p. 171), a competence is a reliable “dispositional ability to discern the true from the false in a certain domain.” And belief comes in two varieties (2015, p. 178): credence above a certain confidence threshold, or (disposition to) affirmative judgment.

  5. 5.

    One might distinguish between direct and indirect causal production. To illustrate, the goals Rooney scores manifest his football abilities, but his salary constitutes no manifestation of those abilities. Only the goals are caused directly by his innermost skill when in the right shape and situation. His innermost skills merely play an indirect causal role in accounting for the pay Rooney receives.

  6. 6.

    An influential, alternative way of unpacking the ‘because’ relation, among virtue epistemologists, is Greco’s causal-explanatory salience model, as in his (2009).

  7. 7.

    Since the situation component of complete competences pertains to features of the individual agent’s local environment, these competences will supervene on the conjunction of individualistic properties and such features. Understanding complete competences in this way squares well with Sosa’s claim that cases of environmental epistemic luck, e.g. fake barn cases, are compatible with the formation of apt beliefs; or so Kallestrup and Pritchard (2014) argue.

  8. 8.

    Sosa (2007).

  9. 9.

    The focus is throughout on Sosa’s work, but nothing in the following rules out applicability of other virtue epistemologies to collectives, indeed mentalist evidentialist, process reliabilist, or other non-virtue-theoretic accounts of knowledge might also embrace ascriptions of group knowledge. See also fn. 26.

  10. 10.

    See Goldman (1986) and Conee and Feldman (2004), respectively.

  11. 11.

    Goldman (2014) develops a notion of degree of group justifiedness roughly on the basis of the proportion of its members who justifiably believes the target proposition by the lights of process reliabilism.

  12. 12.

    “Apple testify before congressional panel over locked iPhone”, (The Denver Post, 2nd March 2016). For similar examples see Tollefsen (2007).

  13. 13.

    “The Conservatives’ ‘independent’ investigation into the ‘Tatler Tory’ scandal was already unravelling last night as it emerged the law firm conducting the inquiry has worked for the party for years”, (The Daily Mail, 2nd December 2015).

  14. 14.

    “A decision by the government to “exile” a terror suspect from London on the basis of secret evidence must be revoked, the High Court has ruled”, (BBC, 3rd July 2009).

  15. 15.

    “The Government knew diesel cars were emitting deadly pollutants at levels four times greater than the official safety limits—and yet ministers continue to offer tax incentives promoting diesel cars”, (The Telegraph, 26th September 2015).

  16. 16.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this question.

  17. 17.

    As Kornblith (2007) argues against Williams (2004) and others.

  18. 18.

    A friend of group knowledge would ideally need to address the challenges that are raised within social epistemology by Wray (2001) and Meijers (2002) to do with the implausibility of group belief as required for group knowledge, and by Lackey (2014) and Carter (2015) to do with alleged epistemic defeat of group knowledge, as well as in the cognitive science literature on group minds and cognition, e.g. to do with putative causal powers of such minds, as in Rupert (2005; manuscript). Our discussion is premised on the possibility of satisfactory answers. For example, Wray (2007) proposes that group knowledge be understood in terms of justified true acceptances.

  19. 19.

    A problem with (SUMMATIVISM) arises when two members of g instantiate incompatible properties. One can instead characterize the summativist view in terms of all or most of the members of g instantiating some epistemic property as being necessary and sufficient for g instantiating that property. Since our counterexamples to (SUMMATIVISM) are also counterexamples to this formulation, we stick with (SUMMATIVISM) for the sake of simplicity.

  20. 20.

    See Tollefsen (2007, pp. 300–301) and Lackey (2014, pp. 66–70) for a survey of cases.

  21. 21.

    Here I am grateful to an anonymous referee.

  22. 22.

    Following Quinton (1975), List (2014) notes that there are collectives to which observers can ascribe “aggregate attitudes”, e.g. public opinion of an electorate, which are constructs that play no direct social roles within those collectives. An aggregate attitude of a collective is a mere function of the attitudes of its individual members, as produced by some aggregation rule. The collectives to which such attitudes can be ascribed neither engage in joint action, nor even conceptualize themselves as groups.

  23. 23.

    The following owes much to Pettit and Schweikard (2006), following Bratman (1999), Gilbert (2001, (2013) and Tuomela (1995, (2005). In contrast, Searle (1990, (2010) holds the rather perplexing view that although collective attitudes are irreducible to individual attitudes, there exist no attitudes over and above the attitudes of individuals. Birch (draft) offers an interesting account of joint know-how in terms of joint intention to action and contributing individual actions.

  24. 24.

    We restrict attention throughout to non-coerced and non-deceived groups. Everything is above board. For example, we shall not classify Block’s (1978) Chinese nation scenario as an instance of group agency or intentionality.

  25. 25.

    The joint intentions that we require for group agency differ from Gilbert’s (1989, p. 306) so-called joint acceptance account according to which a group believes p just in case its members jointly accept p.

  26. 26.

    As mentioned in fn. 9, this paper concentrates exclusively on extending Sosa’s theory of knowledge to include groups. Other accounts of knowledge, virtue-theoretic or not, may also be compatible with group knowledge, but the following make evident why Sosa’s virtue epistemology lends itself to such knowledge by emphasising the role of reliable cognitive abilities which is applicable to groups.

  27. 27.

    Distributed cognition involves a division of cognitive labour within the group such that the cognitive task of producing group knowledge is divided into sub-tasks which are then assigned to sub-groups or individuals who have expertise in the pertinent areas. An individual is a member of the group in virtue of filling a functional role, which is characteristic of performing such a sub-task. For actual cases in science of distributed cognition on a large scale and corresponding assignment of partial credit for epistemic accomplishments, see Cooper (2010) and Westphal (2014).

  28. 28.

    True, the research team would be unable to know q had it not been for the assistant, but here we must distinguish between relevant epistemic and relevant non-epistemic competences. The assistant’s contribution is relevant in this counterfactual sense, but it plays no justificatory role vis-à-vis the belief that q. It’s also true that Drs X and Y rely on the work of other scientists. No team conducts research in a vacuum. Suppose Dr X’s proof of \(p\rightarrow q\) depends on Dr Z’s proof of a certain lemma. Clearly, Dr Z’s contribution is epistemically relevant, albeit only indirectly so. But whatever (indirect) relevant epistemic contribution agents outwith the research team make towards Dr X’s knowledge that \(p\rightarrow q\) will also count as a (indirect) relevant epistemic contribution towards the team’s knowledge of that proposition.

  29. 29.

    As is familiar, if the members of a group are more likely to hit the truth than not, then adding more members under majority rule increases the probability that the group also hits the truth. See List (2006) for more details.

  30. 30.

    Of course the inconsistency could equally well be resolved by the group forming majority beliefs in not-(p & q) and q, from which the group can then form belief in not-p via deductive reasoning. We need a principled account of why certain propositions are treated as premises. Note also that giving epistemic priority to the premises is compatible with the assignment of different weight to selected individual members in determining the group’s stance with respect to each of the premises. That’s plausible in cases of distributed cognition such as in (SCIENCE). For more details see List and Pettit (2002), and List (2012).

  31. 31.

    In both of our examples the group belief is arrived at via deductive reasoning, but nothing rules out basing group beliefs on inductive, probabilistic, abductive or other ampliative reasoning.

  32. 32.

    See also Sosa (2015, Chap 1) in which an account of action as apt intention is developed.

  33. 33.

    See Searle (2001) and McDowell (2011), respectively.

  34. 34.

    List and Pettit (2006) take such principles to make up the constitution of a group, which is a set of rules for determining how individual inputs are combined in generating group outputs. See also Gilbert (2004, p. 96) who uses the term ‘established group’.

  35. 35.

    See Hutchins (1995) and Bird (2010) for more details.

  36. 36.

    Lackey (2012, (2014) holds that group testimony is reducible to the spokesperson’s testimony, even when that person is not a member of the group. However, (SCIENCE) seems problematic on her view as no obvious individual can be identified as the testifying spokesperson. Neither Drs. X and Y, nor the assistant serve as a spokesperson for the research team. Moreover, journal editors are typically not appointed to issue statements on behalf of researchers who publish in their journals. They do not represent the arguments or views of individual papers, or even intend to communicate any such contents.

  37. 37.

    We shall not provide an account of how epistemic properties are typed, but the intuitive idea is that knowing p and knowing q are of the same type, whereas knowing p and justifiably believing p are of different types.

  38. 38.

    Compare with Sawyer Keith (2002, (2003).

  39. 39.

    Bird (2010, 2014, p. 13) criticises the claim that group knowledge supervenes on the mental states of individuals, as a special case of the social supervening on the individual. His contention is that supervenience fails for states of social knowing brought about by distributed cognition, as in (SCIENCE). Instead, he proposes that the supervenience base be extended to include “non-human entities as well as human ones and also facts about the relationships between individuals (which need not themselves supervene on individual states)”. Pace Bird, we maintain that structures and networks within groups are cashed out in terms of intentional and dispositional states of individuals. As regards non-human entities, there is no question that group knowledge supervenes on such. But that is compatible with the supervenience of group knowledge on the states of individuals as long as those states supervene on such entities. Supervenience is transitive. Bird must show that the supervenience base for group knowledge includes non-human entities in addition to those in the supervenience base for states of individuals. Thus, in the case of (SCIENCE), the sorts of entities to which Bird appeals, e.g. online resources, computer hardware, lab equipment, are ones on which Drs X and Y’s knowledge also supervenes.


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Correspondence to Jesper Kallestrup.

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Kallestrup, J. Group virtue epistemology. Synthese 197, 5233–5251 (2020).

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  • Virtue epistemology
  • Ernest Sosa
  • Group knowledge
  • Reduction
  • Supervenience