A Defense of Ignorance: Its Value for Knowers and Roles in Feminist and Social Epistemologies (2022)

Cynthia Townley's book brings together virtue epistemology and social epistemology to argue that epistemic virtues are not adequately understood if we take epistemic individualism and the maximization of true belief to be the starting points for a discussion of epistemic practice and value. This book continues an important discussion of epistemic injustice initiated primarily by Miranda Fricker (2007) and is an interesting and thought-provoking contribution to that discussion. Townley's discussion of the role of trust in testimony is very interesting and constitutes an important contribution to theories of trust, and the ways she combines the insights she gleans from social epistemology, virtue epistemology, and feminist epistemology are quite fruitful, making the book well worth reading for those of us interested in these areas.

Townley argues that traditional approaches to virtue epistemology have focused too narrowly on knowledge acquisition and transmission as the goals of epistemic life. Given the fact of epistemic interdependence (the methodological starting point for social epistemologies), Townley claims that virtue epistemologies need to attend to the ways in which some exercises of epistemic agency are good in and of themselves, and that some aspects of a virtuous epistemic community mean that the goal of acquiring or transmitting true beliefs must be traded off against other kinds of goals. Townley's examples of the kinds of epistemic virtues that might take priority over the goal of truth-seeking include the maintenance of relationships that are based on trust, and the goal of allowing knowers in a community the full exercise of their epistemic agency. The maintenance of responsible epistemic relationships and the nurturance of epistemic agency are two epistemic values that do not reduce to, and may in fact come into conflict with, the value of increased knowledge, understood as justified true belief.

If, for instance, I have access to a wide range of interesting and important truths, but cannot myself be taken to be an authority, or cannot be acknowledged by others as an epistemic agent, then no increase in the true beliefs I can know will make up for what has been denied me; to be able to act as an authority, to be taken seriously, and to be treated as a trustworthy knower are all goods in their own right, and their value cannot be captured if we focus too narrowly on the idea that epistemic virtues are virtues because they are truth- or knowledge-conducive. The full exercise of an agent's epistemic powers is itself an epistemic good that, if denied, cannot be replaced by an increase in her store of justified true beliefs.

Similarly, if some group of knowers is systematically excluded from some realm of epistemic activity, then their exclusion is an epistemic harm -- not just a social or political harm -- even if their inclusion in the epistemic realm from which they are excluded would not necessarily mean that the community of knowers who constitute that realm would know more truths about their target of study. Townley says that this non-instrumental view of epistemic relationships leads to a need to attend to ignorance and inter-agent virtues, such as trust.

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There are four chapters in the book, in addition to the introduction and a short conclusion: (1) "Epistemic Dependence: Beyond Facts;" (2) "Ignorance and the Interdependence of Epistemic Agents;" (3) "Institutional Epistemic Dependence;" and (4) "Ignorance, Arrogance, and Pluralism." The part of the argument that defends the strong claim that ignorance has value is to be found primarily in Townley's discussion of trust in chapter 2, while the other chapters generally defend a weaker claim -- that ignorance has been ignored (sorry, I couldn't resist) because of the "epistemophilia"[1]that characterizes traditional epistemology. Epistemophilia and its ally -- veritism -- are acceptable within appropriate bounds, Townley argues, but taken to excess they tend to deform analyses of epistemic practice, making it difficult to see how epistemic practice might intersect with, support, or undermine ethical practice, political practice, and social practice. Similarly, epistemophilia distorts the kinds of virtuous relationships that need to exist in virtuous epistemic communities. Townley's corrective for epistemophilia is an explicit focus on ignorance and a bracketing of the assumption that all ignorance is bad. The value that epistemology should attribute to knowledge and to ignorance should be responsive to context, Townley argues: knowledge is not always good, and ignorance is not always to be avoided. Taking this view of ignorance shows that virtuous epistemic traits need not be truth-conducive.

Townley begins by distinguishing simple ignorance from other forms of ignorance, including entrenched or interested ignorance (discussed by Frye (1983), Mills (1997) and in a special issue ofHypatiadedicated to epistemologies of ignoranceedited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (vol. 21, no. 3)). Her discussion of ignorance focuses on simple ignorance, which she defines as a lack of knowledge that could be acquired relatively simply (x). While later sections of the book do address issues that have to do with entrenched, interested ignorance (and this kind of ignorance is a form that she does not defend), Townley focuses on simple ignorance because it has been given less attention in feminist and social epistemologies and has been fairly explicitly rejected as a possible epistemic virtue.

The next distinction that Townley draws, which is essential to her argument, is the difference between trust and reliance. Townley's discussion of testimony, and its role in virtue and social epistemologies, turns on the difference between epistemic dependence understood as a reliance on other knowers for information and epistemic dependence understood as trusting other knowers. Insofar as we treat other knowers and their testimony as giving us information, we rely on them for that information. But in this respect, other knowers are no different to us than reliable instruments upon which we rely for information: there is, from this perspective, no difference between an accurate thermometer and an accurate or reliable informant. Townley argues that our relationships with other knowers are deeper than this -- that we do not (and should not) simply treat other knowers as means to getting more and better information. Rather, we come to be members of the community of reasoners by coming to see other knowers as subjects, and in this sense we do not merely rely on them; some knowers are people we trust, and we recognize them as epistemic agents in their own right. Reliance and trust are two distinguishable aspects of epistemic dependence, and this distinction allows Townley to argue that inter-agent virtues are as important as the epistemic virtues that an individual possesses. This distinction also provides us with a more sophisticated and deeper understanding of epistemic dependence.

Townley argues that respect for other agents -- taking them to be more than mere sources of information -- can override the value of acquiring true beliefs in some instances, and this is particularly true when it comes to the virtue of preserving trusting relationships. She maintains that the maintenance of trusting relationships involves the willingness to forgo acquiring certain beliefs, because when we trust another epistemic agent, we implicitly agree to refrain from verifying independently what she tells us. Were we to seek out independent verification, we would be undermining the trust relationship, since the trusted person takes the trustor to have committed herself to not seeking independent verification. Townley's analysis of the multiple layers of interdependence that characterize and in fact give rise to epistemic agency help us see why this complex interdependence changes the contours of epistemic virtue theory.

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Townley also discusses two important objections to her account of trust. One objection comes from the attitudinist: that trust is not a commitment, but is instead an affective attitude, as Karen Jones (1996) has argued. Townley says that the affective attitude analysis of trust focuses exclusively on the trustor and not on how the trustee is able to recognize and respond to that trust. The second objection comes from an account of epistemic virtue offered by Elizabeth Fricker (1994). This objection is that the trust a hearer puts in the reliability or sincerity of a particular testifier can be justified by other beliefs one has about the testifier. If this is so, then one can independently verify the trustworthiness of a testifier, and so only the gullible extend trust presumptively. Drawing on this argument, Townley considers the possibility that epistemic virtue might require that a hearer take a critical attitude toward testimony. She concludes that if we accept the distinction between reliance, in which I take a person to be a reliable source of information, just as I would my outdoor thermometer, and trust, then this objection loses its force.

Townley argues that epistemic virtue does not require complete gullibility, but it does not require a critical stance in the face of testimony either. Suspicion or an overly critical attitude can undermine epistemic relationships, and so trust (and, by extension, ignorance) can be an ally of epistemic virtue.

Townley takes a bold stance in the first two chapters, and they are the heart of the argument for the positive value of ignorance; the last two chapters offer a more qualified account of the value of ignorance. These chapters do not argue for the value of ignorance itself, but for the value of making room for ignorance in an account of epistemic practices and epistemic virtues. Chapter three argues that the lack of attention to ignorance leads to an insufficiently thin notion of epistemic responsibility and expertise. If we understand epistemic responsibility as the obligation to know more or to share information we miss the fact that it sometimes involves holding back certain information so that a non-expert audience can better understand. The responsible exercise of expertise cannot be understood on the model of epistemology that treats the primary epistemic good as the maximization of true beliefs because the power relationships that characterize the interactions between expert and non-expert knowers require an analysis that recognizes the ways that power and authority structure epistemic relationships. Cooperation among members of an epistemic community is often best served by "trust, selectivity, and discretion" (60), all of which are virtues that may compete with the idea of maximizing the number of true beliefs epistemic agents hold or share with other knowers.

Chapter four argues that some ways of collecting knowledge are both morally and epistemically irresponsible. Townley uses practices involved with bioprospecting to illustrate this claim. Bioprospecting involves the search for biological samples that have pharmaceutical or other kinds of potential uses. It is often initiated by large multi-national corporations based in industrialized nations, with a view to producing patentable products. Townley argues that the sustenance of epistemic agency and epistemic relationships should take priority over the goal of simply collecting information, and that an important part of epistemic responsibility in these cases is the recognition, on the part of researchers, of the ways in which indigenous medical practices and practitioners are situated in their own complex relationships. Furthermore, she argues that these interactions are susceptible to a particular kind of epistemic harm: that of a failure to give appropriate credit, which she argues is a form of epistemic injustice. Another and related form of epistemic injustice she examines in this chapter is the problem of arrogance, in which "an arrogant agent can over-claim authority by dogmatism, dismissing challenges, ignoring alternative views or requests for justification, or discrediting another epistemic agent's claims" (102). This form of epistemic injustice need not occur across ethnic, racial, or class divides, but can be a temptation in our everyday encounters with people we live with.

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Townley's focus on ignorance is a way of recognizing that other agents are more than just sources of information, but have their own ways of relating to their beliefs and their epistemic character that must be honored in our interactions with them. So, Townley argues, an epistemological approach that does not assume that ignorance is to be remedied, or that ignorance is always an epistemic weakness, is better able to balance the different epistemic virtues that epistemic interdependence and cooperation call for.

This seems like a recommendation worth taking. However, I might quibble with her definition of simple ignorance as the refusal to seek out knowledge when one could easily do so. For instance, it seems to me that ignorance is,prima facie, a vice, and that refusing to seek out knowledge that we could easily get is something different. That description is not, I think, an adequate definition of what we mean by ignorance. Refusing to seek out knowledge is a more neutral state of affairs, a form of inaction that we cannot avoid to some extent given the real constraints on our time and attention, and thus not so much an epistemic vice as an epistemic limit. I think that Townley could have taken the less contentious position that ignorance isprima faciea vice, that its perniciousness (which she recognizes in chapters three and four) shades into neutrality in some instances, and that its exclusion from the realm of epistemology has deformed our understanding of epistemic virtue and epistemic communities. This more moderate approach would not, I think, undermine her argument. Nevertheless, my objection aside, I think the book provides a sophisticated analysis of epistemic interdependence and contributes significantly to the literature on epistemic virtue and epistemic injustice.

Works cited

Fricker, Elizabeth (1994) "Against Gullibility" inKnowing from Words, edited by B.K. Matilal and A. Chakrabarti, Dordrecht: Kluwer. p. 125-62.

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Fricker, Miranda (2007)Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Frye, Marilyn (1983)The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.

Jones, Karen (1996) "Trust as an Affective Attitude"Ethics, 107: 4-25.

Mills, Charles (1997)The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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FAQs

What is the meaning of feminist epistemological? ›

Feminist epistemology focuses on how the social location of the knower affects what and how she knows. It is thus a branch of social epistemology. Individuals' social locations consist of their ascribed social identities (gender, race, sexual orientation, caste, class, kinship status, trans/cis etc.)

Why is feminist epistemology important? ›

Feminist epistemology compels us to critically examine the edifice of epistemic theorizing from the viewpoint of the subjugated position; thus the claims of standpoint theory will be addressed in order to understand the interconnected relationship between the social and political marginalization of women, and other ...

What is the central concept of feminist epistemology and why is this important? ›

The central idea of feminist epistemology is that knowledge reflects the particular perspectives of the theory. The main interest of feminist philosophers is how gender stereotypes situate knowing subjects.

Why is social epistemology important? ›

Social epistemology is theoretically significant because of the central role of society in the knowledge-forming process. It also has practical importance because of its possible role in the redesign of information-related social institutions.

What is an example of Androcentrism? ›

Examples of androcentrism include the use of male terms (e.g., he), images, and research participants to represent everyone. Androcentrism has been shown to have serious consequences. For example, women's health has been adversely affected by over-generalized medical research based solely on male participants.

When was feminist epistemology created? ›

Feminist standpoint epistemology initially developed in the social sciences, primarily in work by Nancy Hartsock (1998) in political science and by Dorothy Smith in sociology.

What do u understand by feminism? ›

Feminism is an interdisciplinary approach to issues of equality and equity based on gender, gender expression, gender identity, sex, and sexuality as understood through social theories and political activism.

What are some of the basic research questions of feminist theory? ›

What are some of the basic research questions of feminist theory? How can we achieve equality for women? How are gender role expectations created, and how are they passed down, generation to generation? How might perceptions of gender lead to discrimination?

Who is the main proponent of feminist standpoint theory? ›

Sandra Harding is the main canonizing force behind feminist standpoint theory.

What is feminist epistemology PDF? ›

Feminist epistemologists argue that self-critical assessments are. needed to forestall gender bias in theoretical and scientific researches and inquiry. It is a common practice among feminists and feminist philosophers alike, to attack male-domination by advo-

What is virtue epistemology knowledge? ›

Virtue epistemology is a collection of recent approaches to epistemology that give epistemic or intellectual virtue concepts an important and fundamental role. Virtue epistemologists can be divided into two groups, each accepting a different conception of what an intellectual virtue is.

What is an example of social epistemology? ›

The most conservative social epistemologies look only at the effects of social processes on individual reasoning and knowledge. For example, Kornblith (in Schmitt 1994) looks at those circumstances under which one scientist can judge that it is reasonable to rely on the expertise of another scientist.

What is an example of epistemology? ›

An example of epistemology is a thesis paper on the source of knowledge. (uncountable) The branch of philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge; theory of knowledge, asking such questions as "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", "What do people know?", "How do we know what we know?".

What best defines the epistemology of sociology? ›

Epistemology is best defined as. The the theory of knowledge. The word Epsistemology is derived from two Greek words meaning. The study of exact knowledge.

What is the difference between sexism and androcentrism? ›

In other words, androcentrism consists of providing a partial view of the world by considering men the measure of all things and by silencing or di- minishing women's merits. Sexism is the actual discrimination against wom- en by some people (both men and women) who scorn what women are and do.

What is the difference of androcentrism and patriarchy? ›

Individual men are androcentric based on life experiences and the cultural validation of those life experiences; however, patriarchal societies operate based on androcentric viewpoints, so it is common for women living in patriarchal societies to express androcentric viewpoints and practices based on cultural ...

What is the opposite of androcentrism? ›

Gynocentrism is the opposite of androcentrism and involves an emphasis on female perspectives over all others.

What is difference between feminism and patriarchy? ›

Patriarchy is a system of society or government in which men hold power and women are largely excluded from it. Feminism is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. As evident from their definitions, these two are extremely opposing concepts.

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In late 2018, Women Now started a new research project, entitled “Gender Justice and Feminist Knowledge Production in Syria”. This project was developed to provide the appropriate space, platform and critical feminist tools for Syrian women and activists.

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Feminist empiricism is a perspective within feminist research that combines the objectives and observations of feminism with the research methods and empiricism. Feminist empiricism is typically connected to mainstream notions of positivism.

What are the main points of feminism? ›

Feminism works towards equality, not female superiority. Feminists respect individual, informed choices and believe there shouldn't be a double standard in judging a person. Everyone has the right to sexual autonomy and the ability to make decisions about when, how and with whom to conduct their sexual life.

Who called feminist? ›

A feminist is someone who supports equal rights for women. If your brother objects strongly to women being paid less than men for doing the same job, he's probably a feminist. If you believe that women should have the same political, social, and economic rights as men, you are a feminist.

Who created feminism? ›

Mary Wollstonecraft is seen by many as a founder of feminism due to her 1792 book titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she argues for women's education. Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist and French philosopher, is credited with having coined the word "féminisme" in 1837.

What is the most important aspect of feminist theory? ›

Feminist theory often focuses on analyzing gender inequality. Themes often explored in feminist theory include discrimination, objectification (especially sexual objectification), oppression, patriarchy, stereotyping, art history and contemporary art, and aesthetics.

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The feminist movement has effected change in Western society, including women's suffrage; greater access to education; more equitable pay with men; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the right of women to make individual decisions regarding pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); and the ...

What are the 4 types of feminism? ›

Introduction – Feminism: The Basics

There are four types of Feminism – Radical, Marxist, Liberal, and Difference.

When was feminist epistemology created? ›

Feminist standpoint epistemology initially developed in the social sciences, primarily in work by Nancy Hartsock (1998) in political science and by Dorothy Smith in sociology.

What is feminist epistemology PDF? ›

Feminist epistemologists argue that self-critical assessments are. needed to forestall gender bias in theoretical and scientific researches and inquiry. It is a common practice among feminists and feminist philosophers alike, to attack male-domination by advo-

What are the features of feminist empiricism? ›

Feminist empiricism is a perspective within feminist research that combines the objectives and observations of feminism with the research methods and empiricism. Feminist empiricism is typically connected to mainstream notions of positivism.

What is Simone de Beauvoir's central question? ›

Sexuality, existentialist feminism and The Second Sex

Beauvoir argues that "the fundamental source of women's oppression is its [femininity's] historical and social construction as the quintessential" Other. Beauvoir defines women as the "second sex" because women are defined as inferior to men.

What do u understand by feminism? ›

Feminism is an interdisciplinary approach to issues of equality and equity based on gender, gender expression, gender identity, sex, and sexuality as understood through social theories and political activism.

Who is the main proponent of feminist standpoint theory? ›

Sandra Harding is the main canonizing force behind feminist standpoint theory.

What are some of the basic research questions of feminist theory? ›

What are some of the basic research questions of feminist theory? How can we achieve equality for women? How are gender role expectations created, and how are they passed down, generation to generation? How might perceptions of gender lead to discrimination?

What is feminist knowledge production? ›

In late 2018, Women Now started a new research project, entitled “Gender Justice and Feminist Knowledge Production in Syria”. This project was developed to provide the appropriate space, platform and critical feminist tools for Syrian women and activists.

What is difference between feminism and patriarchy? ›

Patriarchy is a system of society or government in which men hold power and women are largely excluded from it. Feminism is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. As evident from their definitions, these two are extremely opposing concepts.

What is positivism in feminism? ›

Feminists argued that positivism is a hegemonic epistemology of white male. It is a fact that for all his rationality and atheism Auguste Comte was ironically perturbed by the absence of religion in so far as it created a gap in moral guidance and comfort.

Why is standpoint theory important? ›

Standpoint theory gives voice to the marginalized groups by allowing them to challenge the status quo as the outsider within the status quo representing the dominant position of privilege. The predominant culture in which all groups exist is not experienced in the same way by all persons or groups.

What type of feminist is de Beauvoir? ›

Simone de Beauvoir is one of the leading figures within the strand of thought known as socialist feminism. As the term implies, this approach seeks to highlight the problems inherent within patriarchy and capitalism.

What kind of feminist was Beauvoir? ›

Beauvoir's emphasis on the fact that women need access to the same kinds of activities and projects as men places her to some extent in the tradition of liberal, or second-wave feminism. She demands that women be treated as equal to men and laws, customs and education must be altered to encourage this.

Why is Simone de Beauvoir important today? ›

She is best known for her groundbreaking ideas surrounding feminism; her book, The Second Sex, is said to mark the beginning of second wave feminism across the globe. In her book, Beauvoir argues that throughout history, women have become classified as the Other, which has allowed women to remain oppressed.

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