Epistemic Emotions and the Value of Truth


In this paper, I discuss the intrinsic value of truth from the perspective of the emotion studies in virtue epistemology. The strategy is the one that looks at epistemic emotions as driving forces towards truth as the most valuable epistemic good. But in doing so, a puzzle arises: how can the value of truth be intrinsic (as the most valuable epistemic good) and instrumental (being useful to the epistemic agent)? My answer lies in the difference established by Duncan Pritchard (Pritchard 2014) between epistemic value and the value of the epistemic applied to the case of subjective motivations to knowing. I argue that the value of truth is intrinsic as epistemic value and that this is not only compatible with the idea that truth can have different kinds of instrumental values but also that the subjective value of truth, disclosed by epistemic emotions, can make the value of truth stronger if regulated within patterns of virtuous enquiry.

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  1. 1.

    A significant shift in cognitive science from the interactionist models of the late 1990s to the more recent integrationist models for which emotion and cognition are deeply entangled in our mental life is recognizable in the literature. However, this does not mean that there is a consensus about what our best science says regarding the emotions, and this is also reflected in the different philosophical conceptualizations about them. Some good exemplars are de Sousa 1987 on the two systems theory (also called “two-track mind”), Griffiths 1997 and DeLancey 2001 on the evolutionary approach and Ekman’s basic emotions, Prinz 2004 in relation to Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, Thagard 2008 on the interactionist model, and Wilkinson et al. 2019 on predictive processing.

  2. 2.

    The conceptualization of emotions as misguided judgements, confused perceptions, or irrational states has a long tradition. For an overview, see Solomon 1998 and Sorabji 2000. But it can also be found in the contemporary discussion in epistemology, especially regarding specific epistemic practices. See, for example, Mele 2000 about the role of emotions in self-deception and Elster 2010 in counter wishful thinking.

  3. 3.

    Notably by Aristotle. For a contemporary reference to Aristotle regarding the difference between intrinsic and instrumental value within the virtue epistemology debate, see Pritchard 2016.

  4. 4.

    Jennings (2012) has also highlighted the subjective dimension implied by attention. This point is essential for my thesis because it provides evidence about the compatibility between the subjective and the objective dimension of the enquiry. If emotions enhance attention, as argued by Brady, and if attention is subjective and epistemic, as contended by Jennings, therefore the subjective value of the epistemic is not incompatible with its intrinsic value, as I argue in this paper.

  5. 5.

    Also this debate is vast, especially within the virtue epistemology literature (for an overview, see Grimm 2010). Different answers to the issue can be found in Zagzbeski 2001; Kvanvig 2003; Kvanvig 2005; Pritchard et al. 2010, ch. 4; and Grimm 2014.

  6. 6.

    There are some serious objections to this thesis which certainly deserve to be discussed (see, for instance, Kvangig 2005). Here I assume the agreement on being the truth the object of our epistemic enterprise. I do not argue for it since my focus is in the process that leads to the epistemic goal and the challenges related to this subjective driving. However, I think that my argument can also provide some points in favour of the establishment of truth as the fundamental epistemic good, as I will highlight in the conclusion.

  7. 7.

    The power of emotions of disclosing values has been highly stressed in the field of philosophy of emotions. The difference among the approaches lies on the how they can do it, if as judgements of values, quasi-perceptions or bodily awareness, but the vital link between emotions and value is very well documented in the literature (for a guide on it, see Roeser and Todd 2014; for an account close to the one I am developing here for which value is detected by our emotional engagements, see Slaby and Wüschner 2014). But what I am stressing here is that looking at emotions from the perspective of virtue epistemology allows us to understand their epistemic value and, thus, to discuss their relevance in disclosing the value of truth.

  8. 8.

    I cannot fine-grain here the precise epistemic evaluation played by specific epistemic emotions since this is not required by the argument I am developing here. However, I want to highlight that recognizing a general epistemic function does not deny the specific functionality of different epistemic emotions. The objects of curiosity are appraised differently from the objects of doubt, for example. We may say, for instance, that the object of curiosity is appraised as being epistemically promising or enticing, while the object of doubt as being inadequately or ill-supported. Then, it would also be important to analyse how epistemic evaluation is performed by emotions. At this regard, for example, Christopher Hookway (2003) has argued that this epistemic evaluation possesses a kind of immediacy, and it is related to the intellectual virtue of “being observant”.

  9. 9.

    Notably, this example has been employed by Sosa (2001) for addressing the issue of the trivial truths which seems to jeopardize the intrinsic value of truth. The issue brought by trivial truths has been extensively discussed in moral philosophy regarding what really matters in life too. See, for example, Hurka (2011) who employed the very similar case of knowing the number of blades of grass in the yard as a trivial truth.

  10. 10.

    Discussing the problem of truth’s value for deflationism, Ferrari (2018) has distinguished four problems concerning the normativity of truth: axiological, teleological, criteriological, and deontological. I am here considering the teleological one for which truth is conceptualized as the goal of enquiry. For Ferrari, each model also assumes a normative attitude about the truth. Specifically regarding the teleological model, having a teleological attitude means to regard truth as a worthy goal of enquiry and, I add, epistemic emotions as motivations to those epistemic actions directed to the truth as their goal.

  11. 11.

    I am here employing the same word “end” for referring to two different meanings (1. the conclusion of the path; 2. the goal of the path) because this is part of the argument’s strategy. Télos, in Greek, means both “conclusion” and “goal”: thus the télos is the goal that is at the end of the journey.

  12. 12.

    This is known as the swamping problem: instrumental values get “swamped” when the noninstrumental good in questions is achieved (see Pritchard (2011)).

  13. 13.

    It is crucial to notice that teleology is not only an account of knowledge but most fundamentally the ontological account which explains the functioning of life, from the most basic organisms to the movement of the planets. Aristotle has thus developed this account throughout his entire work, especially in the treatises dedicated to the science of nature. For an excellent guide to Aristotle’s teleology, see Johnson (2005).

  14. 14.

    For some references on the connection between epistemic emotions and enquiry in the life of the scientists, see Chandrasekhar (1987). For a recent philosophical discussion on the role of emotions in scientific research, see Kochan (2013).

  15. 15.

    The fact that scientists often seem to be pursuing practical ends (like funding and tenure) and not the truth is a widely discussed issue in the literature. See, e.g., Stocker (1980), Rorty (1995), Hazlett (2013), and Elgin (2017).

  16. 16.

    On the moral value of our truth-oriented dispositions and the phenomenology of caring about truth, see Williams (2004), Lynch (2005), Horwich (2006), and Wrenn (2015).

  17. 17.

    Fear and anxiety are not exclusively or primarily related to epistemic matters, but they nevertheless play important epistemic functions. For example, some studies show how anxiety and time-pressure enhance our performances. See Geoffard and Luchini (2010) and Livet (2016).

  18. 18.

    There is now a quite vast literature on the ethics of knowledge, and different characterisations have been provided for depicting its meaning. I here assume it in the general terms of a normative dimension which rule the excellent performance of the epistemic practice. See Fricker (2007).

  19. 19.

    Also, this puzzle has a very noble breed: it is known as the Meno’s paradox, and it is a paradox about learning/enquiry which has been developed by Plato in the Meno. On the Meno’s paradox and its significance concerning Plato’s epistemology (in particular his answer to the puzzle with the theory of recollection), see Scott (2006, 75–120).

  20. 20.

    The adverb “safely” is important here because there could be the case in which Hannah, although not appreciating the value of truth, will get to it. But this would be just by chance, and thus not systematically reiterated as a method of enquiry. On this, see Chap. 7 of Pritchard (2005). Then, we could also add the adverb “responsibly”, although not all the virtue epistemological would agree with it. In fact, it is possible to get to the truth in a viced way, but this would contradict the ethics of knowledge that I take here as the upper level required for regulating the enquiry to the value of truth. On responsible knowledge, see Code (1987). On the intellectual virtues needed for caring about truth, see Lynch (2005).

  21. 21.

    See Candiotto (2017a, 2019) for a detailed analysis of this cognitive machinery.

  22. 22.

    This thesis is developed primarily in the Republic. For an analysis of the lines, see Woolf (2009). For a conceptualization of this account in virtue epistemology, see Zagzbeski (1996).

  23. 23.

    I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer who suggested to explicitly remark this virtuous entanglement between the intrinsic value of truth and the motivations that allow to be sensitive to the value of truth of our beliefs within the ethics of knowledge.

  24. 24.

    This perspective also solves a possible application of the swamping problem to epistemic emotions (when you achieve the truth, you don’t need any more epistemic emotions as the motivation towards the truth) because intellectual virtues are stable traits of the character which, after having achieved some results, will generate new interest in getting to new ones.


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This work was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Project: Bond. Positive Emotions for Group Cognition) and by IMéRA - Institute for Advanced Studies (Project: Epistemic Cooperation. The Function of Positive Emotions).

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Candiotto, L. Epistemic Emotions and the Value of Truth. Acta Anal 35, 563–577 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-019-00416-x

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  • Epistemic emotions
  • Motivation
  • Intrinsic and instrumental values
  • The value of truth
  • Intellectual virtues
  • Ethics of knowledge