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Can Closed-mindedness be an Intellectual Virtue?

  • Heather Battaly (a1)

Is closed-mindedness always an intellectual vice? Are there conditions in which it might be an intellectual virtue? This paper adopts a working analysis of closed-mindedness as an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options. In standard cases, closed-mindedness will be an intellectual vice. But, in epistemically hostile environments, closed-mindedness will be an intellectual virtue.

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1 Battaly, Heather, ‘Closed-mindedness and Dogmatism,’ Episteme 15 (2018): 261282; ‘Closed-mindedness as an Intellectual Vice’, in C. Kelp and J. Greco (eds.), Virtue Theoretic Epistemology: New Methods and Approaches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

2 I argue for this account of closed-mindedness and contrast it with an account of open-mindedness in Battaly ‘Closed-mindedness and Dogmatism’.

3 The arguments in this section are further defended in Battaly, ‘Closed-mindedness and Dogmatism’.

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

5 Riggs, Wayne, ‘Open-mindedness, Insight, and Understanding’, in Baehr, J. (ed.), Intellectual Virtues and Education (London: Routledge, 2016), 1837.

6 Fricker (Epistemic Injustice, 37) argues that a card-carrying feminist, at the level of belief and motive, might have passively inherited prejudiced perception from her surrounding society.

7 I further defend this claim in Battaly ‘Closed-mindedness and Dogmatism’.

8 Above, I assume that there is no moral or pragmatic encroachment on conditions of epistemic relevancy. But, I allow for the possibility that moral and pragmatic concerns might sometimes trump epistemic concerns. One might have moral or pragmatic reasons to engage with an agent who is arguing for an epistemically irrelevant claim. When one refuses to so engage, one isn't closed-minded, but one might be callous or uncivil.

9 Orwell, George, 1984 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949).

10 Goldman, Alvin, ‘Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge’, The Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976), 771791.

11 Battaly, Heather, ‘Varieties of Epistemic Vice’, in Matheson, J. and Vitz, R. (eds.), The Ethics of Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 6062. For criticism, see Charlie Crerar, ‘Motivational Approaches to Intellectual Vice’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming).

12 These arguments are defended in Battaly ‘Closed-mindedness as an Intellectual Vice’. On the debate over whether open-mindedness requires reliability, see Carter, J. Adam and Gordon, Emma C., ‘Open-mindedness and Truth’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 44 (2014), 207224; B.J.C. Madison, ‘Is Open-mindedness Truth-Conducive?’ Synthese (forthcoming).

13 This misplaced confidence will be epistemically bad, whether our beliefs are true or false. See Christopher Thi Nguyen, ‘Escape the Echo Chamber’, Aeon (9 Apr, 2018). <>.

14 Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 27.

15 Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 44.

16 Medina, José, The Epistemology of Resistance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 60.

17 Ian James Kidd, ‘Epistemic Corruption and Education’, Episteme (forthcoming).

18 L. Friedman, ‘EPA Scrubs a Climate Website of “Climate Change”’, New York Times (20 Oct, 2017) <>.

19 Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M., Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010).

20 Our current epistemic environment is still several magnitudes away from Orwell's 1984. Some of us can still find (relatively) ordinary environments to occupy, though this will be much harder for some agents than others. It is possible for a single environment to be hostile for some agents (e.g., members of non-dominant groups) but not others; and for a single agent to move through different environments, some of which are hostile and others of which are (relatively) ordinary.

21 Callan, Eamonn and Arena, Dylan, ‘Indoctrination’, in Siegel, H. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 117. I address closed-mindedness about knowledge below.

22 Tessman, Lisa, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

23 Kripke, Saul, Philosophical Troubles: Collected Papers, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 4245.

24 Kripke, Philosophical Troubles, 49.

25 Sosa, Ernest, ‘Knowledge and Time: Kripke's Dogmatism Paradox and the Ethics of Belief’, in Matheson, J. and Vitz, R. (eds.), The Ethics of Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 78.

26 Quassim Cassam, ‘Vices of the Mind’ (book manuscript).

27 Fantl, Jeremy, ‘A Defense of Dogmatism’, in Gendler, T. and Hawthorne, J. (eds.), Oxford Studies in Epistemology 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 34–5; The Limitations of the Open Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

28 Sosa, ‘Knowledge and Time’, 87.

29 Hookway, Christopher, ‘How to be a Virtue Epistemologist’, in DePaul, M. and Zagzebski, L. (eds.), Intellectual Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 189.

30 Morton, Adam, ‘Shared Knowledge from Individual Vice’, Philosophical Inquiries 2 (2014), 171.

31 Fricker, Miranda, ‘Can there be Institutional Virtues?’, in Gendler, T. and Hawthorne, J. (eds.), Oxford Studies in Epistemology 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Hookway, Morton, and Fricker address dispositions. I am shifting the focus to actions.

32 We could describe the case so that it produces a preponderance of pragmatic bads – imagine that the researchers are subject to verbal abuse, etc.

33 Tessman, Burdened Virtues, 2. Tessman argues that burdened virtues are both useful for surviving in oppressive environments, and negatively impact the agent's flourishing. In an epistemically hostile environment, does CM negatively impact an agent's epistemic flourishing? It may, if (for example) it prevents the agent from attaining knowledge. If it doesn't, then I am departing from Tessman's use of ‘burdened’.

34 The sources of hostility vary: some environments will be hostile by design (the Ministry of Truth deliberately lies); others will be hostile due to neglect (the Idiocracy).

35 Idiocracy, Dir. Mike Judge, (20th Century Fox, 2006).

36 Whitcomb, Dennis, Battaly, Heather, Baehr, Jason, and Howard-Snyder, Daniel, ‘Intellectual Humility: Owning Our LimitationsPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research 94 (2017), 509539.

37 Michael Lynch, ‘Epistemic Arrogance and the Value of Political Dissent’, C. Johnson (ed.), Voicing Dissent (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

38 I am inclined to think this isn't open-mindedness, since the agent is unwilling to revise her beliefs. It is something like charity or civility.

39 Open-mindedness is a disposition to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options; closed-mindedness is an unwillingness or inability to so engage. There are situations in which a knowledge-possessing agent can simultaneously fail to be open-minded and fail to be closed-minded – when the options aren't relevant. But, in the hostile environment, the options are relevant. Accordingly, in the hostile environment, choosing not be open-minded entails being closed-minded. The question of whether this is virtuous or vicious is independent.

40 Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance, 60.

41 Thanks to Teresa Allen, Simon Barker, Sven Bernecker, Noell Birondo, Paul Bloomfield, Charlie Crerar,  Amy Flowerree, Trystan Goetze, Heidi Grasswick, Thomas Grundmann, Raja Halwani, Michael Lynch, Toby Napoletano, Christopher Thi Nguyen, Ryan Nichols, Howard Nye, Alicia Patterson, Clifford Roth, Catherine Saint-Croix, Lionel Shapiro, Alessandra Tanesini, Etsuko Taylor, Jon Taylor, Cody Turner, Lani Watson, Dennis Whitcomb, Sarah Wright, an anonymous referee, and audiences at the Epistemic Harms and Wrong Conference (Sheffield 2017), the 2018 Central APA, the Political Polarization and Epistemic Arrogance Conference (UConn 2018), Azusa Pacific University, Vanderbilt University, the Fake Knowledge conference (Cologne 2018), and the University of Connecticut.

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
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