by W. Jay Wood –

This article is about virtue epistemology. In a nutshell, virtue epistemologists claim that acquiring deeply anchored habits of excellent cognitive functioning greatly assists us to win life’s most interesting and important knowledge.  As I will argue, excellent cognitive functioning at its highest levels requires the cooperation of our wills; appropriate desires, loves, and emotions must be successfully recruited to motivate and enable our best intellectual efforts. In its recent, as opposed to ancient and medieval manifesta­tions, virtue epistemology is something of a reforming move­ ment, calling the community of epistemologists to a wider range of concerns than has preoccupied them in the last cen­tury or so.  It underscores how various parts of our personali­ty and behavior come together in our most demanding intel­lectual efforts, making more likely our success at gaining knowledge and understanding. A bit of stage-setting will help readers to appreciate virtue epistemology’s distinctive contributions to philosophy.   In what follows I will discuss epistemology in general, the will and emotions, the nature of moral  and intel­lectual virtues, and end with a more detailed  look at love of knowledge  as an  intellectual  virtue.


Epistemology is traditionally defined as the study of knowledge.  While this definition is true to the Greek roots of our English word “epistemology,” it fails to capture the discipline’s full range of concerns.  For reasons that will become clear, epistemology might better be thought of as a branch of philosophy especially devoted to describing and helping to direct one toward an overall excellent intellectu­al life.

The ancient Greeks defined humans as rational animals. We have cognitive powers that other animals lack.  We can infer, imagine, introspect, and intuit, among other powers, in ways no other animals can.  Although chimps can be taught rudimentary tool use and symbol manipulation, no chimp could write his autobiography, nor would it even occur to a chimp to do so.  Such higher level intellectual activity belongs, among animals, to humans alone.  To note our intellectual superiority to the beasts invites further questions:  How superior are we and in what respects? What are the distinctive cognitive powers normal humans possess, and what accomplishments do these powers enable?  Rene Descartes, often called the father of modern epistemology, wrote:

For to be possessed of good mental powers is not suf­ficient; the principal matter is to apply them well. The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues, and those who proceed very slowly may, provided they always follow the straight road , really advance much faster than those who, though they run, forsake it. ¹

No doubt the experience of most persons amply attests to the correctness of Descartes’s words.  Have we not all met persons possessed of what struck us as powerfully good intellectual ability who, either through lack of opportunity or effort, failed to develop their intellectual potential? Worse still, perhaps we have known persons whose intel­lectual powers have been put to such poor use that they can be accurately described as close-minded, dogmatic, gullible, superstitious, or self deceived.  Descartes’s point is that our intellectual powers need to be trained to excellent use if we hope to lay hold of such goods as knowledge and justified  belief.

Epistemologists disagree among themselves about the nature of our cognitive powers and how they are to be put to their best use.  Plato and Descartes were skeptical that our five senses could deliver knowledge, whereas Locke and Reid thought the senses excellent purveyors of knowledge .  Alvin Plantinga, a contemporary Christian epistemologist, believes that humans have an intellectual faculty that he calls, follow­ing John Calvin, the “sensus divinitatus,” or divine sense, by which we are able to know God and discern the things of God.²  Atheistic episte­mologists, of course, deny that we have any such faculty.  But even where epistemologists agree about the nature of our basic cognitive equipment, they disagree about how to put it to its best use. Descartes recommended above that we follow “the straight road,” which for him was a founda­tionalist method that analyzes our beliefs into their most elemental components, identifies those that are unshakably certain, and reasons by infallible logic from these indubitable starting points to new knowledge.  In no other way is knowledge won, he thought. Some epistemologists offer rules or norms to guide the right use of our intellectual powers.  Evidentialists, for example, insist that we believe nothing that is not adequately supported by evidence, whereas coherentists require that we believe only what can be coherently accommodat­ed into an existing body of beliefs . Virtue episte­mologists claim that much worthwhile knowledge is hard to obtain; it requires that we cultivate refined habits of excellent cognitive functioning­ i.e. intellectual virtues-before it can be won.

Epistemologists are further concerned to ask what intellectual goods are won through the right use of our intellectual powers.  Leading candidates for such goods include knowledge, understanding , justified belief, and experiential acquaintance. Propositional knowledge has received the lion ‘s share of attention since propositions can be expressed in ways that make them easily shared and analyzed.

Clearly, however, propositional knowledge does, not exhaust the store of intellectual goods. Someone familiar with the taste of kiwi or the texture of granite rock knows something thereby, but it may not be possible to convey what one knows propositionally. A symphonic conductor who leads an orchestra in a performance of Mozart’s requiem, under­ stands how the voices, words, instruments, rhythms , tonalities, and other musical elements should coalesce into a first rate performance.  This awareness of the work’s parts and how they fit together musically signifies an intellectual good of the highest caliber, to which we give the name “understanding. ” Unlike knowledge, under­ standing needn’t be true, or expressible propositionally.

In addition to identifying intellectual goods, epistemolo­gists analyze these goods into their component parts. It remains hotly contested whether any epistemologist has ever succeeded in providing the definitive necessary and sufficient conditions for intellectual goods such as knowl­edge and justified belief.  Skeptics deny-perhaps because  of the intractable  disputes-that various or all intellectual goods are within the reach of our cognitive powers, and their arguments and concerns form another topic for epistemological reflection.

The epistemologist’s concern with the nature of our cog­nitive powers and the extent of their reach suggests that epistemologists must periodically attend to, if not con­duct, empirical or scientific investigations into the nature of the human cognitive apparatus.  So-called “naturalized epistemologists” insist that final judgments  about what we are capable of knowing must incorporate what cognitive scientists tell us about the workings of long-term and short-term memory and the accuracy of perception as it concerns pattern recognition, and the like.  But laboratory tests by themselves cannot settle theoretical questions such as how to define epistemological te1ms, how to ana­lyze concepts such as rationality, or how best to under­stand the contours of a particular intellectual virtue.  Must all our beliefs enjoy the support of propositional evidence before being believed?  Am I obligated to seek opposing evidence for any belief I accept?  These and related ques­tions lie outside the purview of empirical science.

So we see that epistemological reflection encompasses at least the following three concerns: the nature and reach of our cognitive powers, their right use, and a correct account of the intellectual goods these powers put within our grasp.  Still other epistemologists, such as Kant, have helped us to think about the underlying preconditions of any sort of intellectual activity at all.



While not all Christians are called to be philosophers, or more particularly, epistemologists, all Christians should be concerned to lay hold of important truths, and train their intellectual powers.  Not only do our rational powers differentiate us from the beasts, but they also contribute significantly to our being able to live fully into the image of God.  God is a God of reason, who knows the differ­ence between truth and falsehood.  God is a moral being, knowing the difference between right and wrong, justice and injustice.  Humans too, as befits our nature, possess the power to know such matters.  Moreover, virtually every walk of life, every profession, is aided by a mind trained to excellence , that enables us to pursue our various callings intelligently, so as to negotiate with finesse the problems that accompany that calling.

Now it would be odd in the extreme if the scriptures were utterly silent about what constitutes so central a part of human existence: our lives as thinking beings.  Where in scripture do we turn to get guidance about how to live excellent lives as thinking beings?  Alas, we cannot crack open the pages of scripture and turn straightaway to 1st and 2nd Epistemology.   (Most people applaud God’s wis­dom in omitting them from the canon).  Nevertheless, scattered throughout scripture are significant clues about epistemological matters that, taken together, offer relative­ly clear guidelines for Christian thinkers.  We will be able to touch upon these guidelines only i n the briefest terms, but sufficiently, I hope, to convey the general idea.

Let’s start by looking at some of the Bible ‘s wisdom liter­ature.  The very first chapter of Proverbs mentions a num­ber of intellectual traits thought to be essential to the best sort of life.  They include: wisdom, understanding , pru­dence, discretion, insight, as well as the ability to under­ stand proverbs, say­ings, and the riddles of  the  wise-call  it interpretive sensitivi­ty.  The later chapters of Proverbs recommend -though not necessarily in these terms-intellectual vi1tues such as teachability, self­ knowledge (or introspective awareness), maturity of thinking, and a love of knowledge.  In the New Testament, St. Paul encourages believers not to think as children, but to be mature in thinking (I Cor. 14). I Timothy states that bishops must be apt teachers, i.e. have a measure of pedagogic virtues, and Titus adds the further requirement that they be able “to confute those who con­tradict” sound doctrine, thereby implying that leaders of the church must be mature in the virtues of dialectical proficiency.  The Bereans in Acts 17 are praised for their open-mindedness and II Thessalonians warns of those who failed “to love the truth.”  The Bible also warns us against pernicious habits of mind, including willful igno­rance (Prov. 8:33 ff.), folly (Prov. 12:33), self-deception (Rom. 1:21), unteachability, crippling doubt (Jas. 1), will­ful ignorance (Eph. 4), and more.

The prescription that emerges from the pages of scripture is something like this: so far as possible, every intellectual agent should work to cultivate within herself a full meas­ure of the intellectual virtues and seek to eliminate the presence of intellectual vices.  This prescription mirrors what many see as the Bible’s moral directives; see to it that such traits as compassion, kindness, forgivingness, forbearance, generosity, take deep root in you, and expunge such traits as envy, jealousy , pride, anger, greed, and other deadly sins.  In cultivating virtue and expunging vice, we not only act in obedience to scripture’s com­mand, we grow more fully into the kinds of persons God intends for us to be-persons made in his image, fit for various avenues of service in the divine economy. Plainly, ignorance and lack of understanding do not abet these endeavors.

The Bible teaches another important lesson about our lives as thinking beings that is crucial for understanding the nature of intellectual virtues. It teaches that humans are not like Star Trek’s Spock or Data, purely cerebral, cogitating machines. We are instead complex beings that combine an intellectual , emotional, and appetitive nature. In Genesis God laments concerning man that the “thoughts of his heart were only for evil.” In the gospels Jesus talks of “understanding with our hearts,” and our “hearts being slow to believe.” In Ephesians , Paul like­ wise speaks of “having the eyes of your hearts enlight­ened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” Similar expressions found throughout the scripture assign to the heart cognitive tasks such as believing , understanding, and knowing.  In these passages and elsewhere, the “heart” refers to the center of our loves, concerns, emotions, and desires: in short, what philosophers refer to as “the will.” In Biblical and classi­cal thinking, the will lies at the very the core of our being. It is not only the center of our affections but it is an exec­utive power whereby we orient our thoughts and initiate actions in the direction of our loves and desires.  In essence, the New Testament teaches us that we function optimally in our intellectual pursuits , particularly as these center on moral, religious, and interpersonal knowledge, when our affections are rightly ordered, when we love the things God loves.

On one level the connection between right thinking and right emotions is a commonplace.  We all recognize the way certain emotions can cause reasoning to go off the rails.  Imagine trying to get a balanced judgment  on some moral matter from someone furious with rage. So while we recognize the negative consequences a wayward will can have on right thinking , we dwell less often on the positive contributions a rightly ordered will makes on our intellectual life. It was characteristic of many modern epistemologists, particularly those influenced by enlight­enment ideals, to ignore or even disparage the positive contribution of the emotions to our intellectual endeavors. Theirs was an epistemology done from the neck up that depreciated our status as embodied beings with wills as well as minds. ³ As I will explain below, virtue epistemol­ogy has among its aims to counterbalance these negative attitudes.



Since one important part of vi1iue epistemology is to emphasize the role of the will in the excellent intellectual life, we must examine further what emotions are and how they contribute to excellent intellectual functioning.  An emotion is a concern based construal , a way of perceiving , sizing up, or taking stock of one’s circumstances in the light of what one cares for or is concerned about.4  In other words, an emotion is a kind of value-saturated form of perception.

Consider anger. To be angry is to see another as having offended against you and the things you care about. Suppose you become aware of someone having viciously slandered one of your friends.  You are angry with the slanderer.  Your anger at once combines a clearly identifi­able propositional  content-that person  has unjustly spoken ill of my friend-and a deep concern for your friend. Alter either the perception or the concern , and the anger disappears or is replaced by a different emotion.  Suppose you discover that the “slanderer” was only rehearsing lines of a play that happen to contain a character with the same name as your friend.  Your anger at once evaporates because you no longer see the alleged offender in the same way.  Alternatively, eliminate your concern. Suppose the person slandered is someone you intensely dislike; rather than anger, the ill words spoken about this person may result in a different emotion or no emotion at all.    While  anger-and  other  emotions-is  paradigmati­cally felt (that is, accompanied by certain bodily states such as clenched jaw and fists), elevated blood pressure and pulse, the emotion of anger should not be identified with those bodily states; they are simply its characteristic accompaniment.  Once your pulse settles and your fists relax, your anger may persist.  As we turn next to the notion of a virtue, we’ll see that properly tutored emotions and affections play an important part.

A virtue is an acquired habit of excellent functioning in some area of life that is difficult and important.  Moral virtues such as compassion, gratitude, and forgivingness are emotions (or, more precisely, dispositions to a range of emotions), reliably disposing us to think, act, and feel in exemplary ways in appropriate circumstances , and thus constitute excellent functioning and refinement of the will.  Virtues must be indexed to the characteristic sorts of circumstances that call them forth.  Upon feeling fear, a courageous person masters his fears to accomplish what­ ever tasks he may confront.  Upon seeing another suffer, a virtuously compassionate person is disposed earnestly to desire and seek an end to the other ‘s suffering.  Notice, though, that the virtue of compassion includes intellectual and behavioral aspects.  Compassionate persons have refined powers of moral perception that make them atten­tive to the suffering of others, as well as good judgment  in discerning the likely cause and remedy of the other’s suf­fering.

We are not born morally virtuous nor does growth in virtue occur automatically.  Traits such as compassion and generosity form no part of our straight-from-the-factory, standard issue equipment.  In fact, Christianity teaches that our default mode as humans is to tend in the opposite direction, toward the vices of indifference and stinginess, for example.  This is why the Bible commands that we “train ourselves in all godliness” (I Tim. 4:7), and that we “make every effort to add to our faith virtue” (II Pet. 1:5).  Becoming the sort of person in whom traits such as generosity and forbearance have taken deep root requires spiritual discipline and practice.

Intellectual virtues include, among others, love of knowl­edge, intellectual humility, open-mindedness, intellectual courage and caution, and intellectual autonomy. Intellectually virtuous persons are reliably disposed to excellent-refined or perfected -cognitive functioning that, as we saw above, consists in an ability reliably to orient one’s thinking so as to acquire, maintain, and comm­unicate various intellectual goods.  So much of our growth and maturity in the intellectual life occurs as a result of our interacting with others, through another’s tes­timony, as teacher and pupil, as a partner in conversation, as member of a research team, and in similar ways.  So it is no part of virtue epistemology to accumulate intellectu­al goods solely for oneself; it redounds to the good of all that such goods be distributed throughout the community.

Like moral virtues, the excellent functioning of our intellect and will that constitute intellectual virtue must be tied to the characteristic sorts of circumstances we routinely encounter. Thus, intellectual courage is called for when the prospect of acquiring or sharing knowledge poses legitimate physical or emotional harms. Intellectual openness is needed when we encounter new and alien ideas, especially those that chal­lenge the beliefs we already hold.  So an intellectual virtue is a deeply anchored disposition to display a specific sort of excellent intellectual functioning in the sorts of circum­stances that characteristically call for them.

Intellectual virtues, as just described, must be contrasted with a thinner conception of intellectual virtue that is equivalent to mere reliable cognitive functioning.  Ancient Greek philosophers sometimes spoke of a virtuous knife, or a virtuous saddle to signify that the knife or saddle per­ formed its intended function well.  Some contemporary epistemologists who speak of intellectual virtues have this limited sense in mind.  On this thinner view of intellectual virtue, an eye with 20/20 vision or a memory that enables one to recall what one ate for breakfast, might be described as intellectual virtues, for given appropriate conditions, these faculties lead us reliably to the truth. 5  Intellectual virtue in the thin sense of accurate faculty functioning is enjoyed by two-year old’s and the least intellectually motivated among us.  These are intellectual accomplishments the great majority of us get automatical­ly, merely upon reaching rather low levels developmental­ly.  It takes no virtue, for instance, to discern amidst a power failure that the lights have gone out, or to do rudi­mentary sums.  The richer, thicker concept of intellectual virtue associated with habits such as intellectual humility and love of truth go beyond mere faculty functioning; they do not accrue to us automatically.



How do properly tutored affections and excellent cogni­tive functioning combine in intellectual virtue?  We noted earlier that emotions can adversely affect cognition.  How do they enable it?  What contribution does the will make in assisting us to lay hold of knowledge and other intellec­tual goods?

Consider that most of the intellectual life is an invitation to acquire new knowledge, to deepen the understanding and grounds of things we already believe.  But new knowledge sometimes challenges what we already believe, leaving us uncertain whether the best course is to persevere with, modify, or jettison  an existing belief , theo­ry, or research program.  Two coordinated intellectual virtues aid our pursuit of intellectual goods and help us to negotiate such decisions: intellectual openness and the virtue of firmness.  Notice, however, that being open to new ideas and to correction has an emotional dimension . The open person will not be too anx­ious about receiving new ideas, and will be able to master the anxiety she has.  She will greet new ideas with eagerness, criticisms with hope, and take satisfaction in making revisions to her think­ing. On the other hand, in the long run we are more likely to secure intellectual goods such as justified beliefs and understanding if we perse­vere in our beliefs and research programs long enough to understand , develop, and put them to the test.  Such tenacity of belief likewise has an emotional dimension. The tenacious intellectual agent has a well- grounded confidence in herself as an intellectual agent, doesn’t buckle when encountering opposition to her beliefs but receives criticisms with aplomb.  She exercises patience in the pursuit of understanding, and is duly glad at such intellectual progress as she is able to make.  These coordinated emotions com­bine with a power of judgment, fairly specific to the particular knowledge in question, that allows the intellectual agent to know when to hold on to a belief and when to abandon it.

Behind both openness and tenacity is another intellectual virtue, call it “love of truth,” that is the mature realization of a person’s enthusiasm for and delight in knowledge.  Aristotle said that by nature all persons desire to know (Metaphysics 1). Even the smallest infants delight in sensory stimulation and, as they grow older, they become more discriminating, seek more complex knowl­edge, deepened understanding, and rich experien­tial acquaintance .  This natural appetite for knowledge, itself an expression of the will, needs to be refined and brought to mature completion. The Apostle Paul writes, “Whatever is true, what­ ever is honorable , whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if anything is excellent, if anything is worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).  Paul thinks there are better and worse ways to direct out intellectual efforts. Imagine someone the bulk of whose intellectual efforts. Imagine someone the bulk of whose intellectual  desires and energies were directed to memorizing  ball scores, doing multiplication tables, or reading through telephone directories. Such a person would, no doubt, acquire truths, lots of them, but they would be trivial in comparison to what this person could acquire. Not all knowledge is on a par.                       I

Augustine  in his Confessions (Book X) and Aquinas i n his Summa Theologiae (Pt. II-II, Q166, 167) discuss the intellectual vi1tue of stu­diositas and the intellectual vice of curiositasStudiositas marks the intellectual agent whose intellectual appetites and energies are routinely directed to knowledge that is significant, worthy, and relevant.   Significant knowledge is intercon­nected to other things we believe, perhaps by entering into explanatory frameworks or serving as the basis or suppo1t of other beliefs , and thus contrasts with isolated facts of the sort stuffing trivia games.  Worthy beliefs bear on matters of deep human concern, such as justice, friendship, and  overall  human  well-being-matters  that make up what Aristotle called eudaimonia.  This is not to say that worthy knowledge must be practical in having obvious application to human needs.  Mapping the human genome or discover­ing how stars are born are not only interesting in their own right, but also spur the learner on to related knowledge, independently of their practi­cal relevance.   Relevant knowledge is practical; it is directed to an intellectual agent’s local con­cerns, the concerns of her society, and the intel­lectual practices she inhabits.

Curiositas is what Augustine and Aquinas call the intellectual vice marked by, among other things, intellectual agents who pursue knowledge from wrong motives, use immoral means, seek trivial or immoral content, or who apply knowledge in morally questionable ways.  Vicious knowledge as well as vicious means of acquiring and dis­seminating knowledge abound: freak shows, video footage of gruesome highway accidents, gossip, corporate spying, eavesdropping , to name a few.  Curiositas also attaches to persons who culpably and habitually forsake opportunities to cultivate their cognitive powers.  Habits such as gullibility, dogmatism, and crippling doubt can take up permanent residence in our intellectual personalities , causing arrested intellectual devel­opment.  Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas, are allied in thinking that intellectual agents, so far as their abilities and circumstances permit, have a responsibility to oversee their intellectual development. To ignore this responsibility, or to discharge it badly, can result in our forfeiting a share of important intellectual goods.

A refined and mature love of truth underlies many of the other intellectual virtues. Intellectually humble people set aside vanity and arrogance and willingly hear criticisms of their views because of an overiding love of truth.

Intellectually generous people go to lengths to impart knowledge and to nurture it in others because they think it a great good that others should know the truth.  For truth’s sake, intellectually courageous people face into perceived dangers that may accompany their seeking, testing, or sharing knowledge.  And people who display the vi1tue of intellectual tenacity/firmness are motivated by a love of truth not to cling to beliefs, theories, research programs, or understandings if, after due consideration, they see that the balance of evidence weighs against them.



In sum, virtue epistemology is chiefly regulative rather than analytic in orientation.  Its tasks are not those of devising the necessary and sufficient conditions of episte­mological concepts such as knowledge and justification. Its chief concern is with education, with the sort of intel­lectual formation that helps persons to foster those habits of mind and will that enable them to lay hold of as wide a share of intellectual goods as possible.  As we have seen, intellectual virtues require the cooperation of a mature will, whose emotions (or affections) coordinate and com­bine with cognition to help us procure life’s most interest­ing and important intellectual goods.


1 Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method in Philosophical Works of Descartes, vol. 1, Elizabeth Haldane and GRT Ross, translators (Dover Publications, 1955) 82.

2 Readers are encouraged to seek out Plantinga’s impressive trilogy on warrant, especially Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000).

3 Descartes is typical here: “I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which was to think, and that for its exis­tence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing: so that this ‘me,’ that is to say the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body.” Ibid ., 101.

4   Here I follow what I consider the best account of emotions I know of: Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology , by Robert C. Roberts (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

5 See, for example, chapters 9-11 of Ernest Sosa’s Knowledge in Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 1991). Sosa qualifies his account by restricting intellectual virtues in various ways to an appropriate environment and a certain range of knowledge.